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How the Concord Management Prosecution Fell Apart

The frothy right and anti-Trump left both politicized DOJ’s decision to dismiss the single count of conspiracy charged against Concord Management and Concord Catering in the Russian troll indictment that Mueller’s team obtained on February 16, 2018. The right — including the President — and the alt-Left are falsely claiming the prosecution against all the trolls fell apart and suggesting this undermines the claims Russia tampered in the 2016 election.

The mainstream left speculated, without any apparent basis, that Bill Barr deliberately undermined the prosecution by classifying some of the evidence needed to prove the case.

The politicization of the outcome is unfortunate, because the outcome raises important policy questions about DOJ’s recent efforts to name-and-shame nation-state activities in cyberspace.

The IRA indictment intersects with a number of important policy discussions

The decision to indict the Internet Research Agency, its owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin, two of the shell companies he used to fund Internet Research Agency (Concord Management and Concord Catering, the defendants against which charges were dropped), and twelve of the employees involved in his troll operations intersects with three policy approaches adopted in bipartisan fashion in recent years:

  • The use of indictments and criminal complaints to publicly attribute and expose the methods of nation-state hackers and the vehicles (including shell companies) they use.
  • A recent focus on Foreign Agents Registration Act compliance and prosecutions in an attempt to crack down on undisclosed foreign influence peddling.
  • An expansive view of US jurisdiction, facilitated but not limited to the role of the US banking system in global commerce.

There is — or should be — more debate about all of these policies. Some of the prosecutions the US has pursued (one that particularly rankles Russia is of their Erik Prince equivalent, Viktor Bout, who was caught in a DEA sting selling weapons to FARC) would instill outrage if other countries tried them with US citizens. Given the way Trump has squandered soft power, that is increasingly likely. While DOJ has obtained some guilty pleas in FARA cases (most notably from Paul Manafort, but Mike Flynn also included his FARA violations with Turkey in his Statement of the Offense), the FARA prosecutions of Greg Craig (which ended in acquittal) and Flynn’s partner Bijan Kian (which ended in a guilty verdict that Judge Anthony Trenga overturned) have thus far faced difficulties. Perhaps most problematic of all, the US has indicted official members of foreign state intelligence services for activities (hacking), though arguably not targets (private sector technology), that official members of our own military and intelligence services also hack. That’s what indictments (in 2014 for hacks targeting a bunch of victims, most of them in Pittsburgh and this year for hacking Equifax) against members of China’s People’s Liberation Army and Russia’s military intelligence GRU (both the July 2018 indictment for the hack-and-leak targeting the 2016 election and an October 2018 one for targeting anti-doping organizations) amount to. Those indictments have raised real concerns about our intelligence officers being similarly targeted or arrested without notice when they travel overseas.

The IRA indictment is different because, while Prigozhin runs numerous mercenary activities (including his Wagner paramilitary operation) that coordinate closely with the Russian state, his employees work for him, not the Russian state. But the Yahoo indictment from 2017 included both FSB officers and criminal hackers and a number of the hackers DOJ has otherwise indicted at times work for the Russian government. So even that is not unprecedented.

The indictment did serve an important messaging function. It laid out the stakes of the larger Russian investigation in ways that should have been nonpartisan (and largely were, until Concord made an appearance in the courts and started trolling the legal system). It asserted that IRA’s efforts to thwart our electoral and campaign finance functions amounted to a fraud against the United States. And it explained how the IRA effort succeeded in getting Americans to unwittingly assist the Russian effort. The latter two issues, however, may be central to the issues that undid the prosecution.

Make no mistake: the IRA indictment pushed new boundaries on FARA in ways that may raise concerns and are probably significant to the decision to drop charges against Concord. It did so at a time when DOJ’s newfound focus on FARA was not yet well-established, meaning DOJ might have done it differently with the benefit of the lessons learned since early 2018. Here’s a shorter and a longer version of an argument from Joshua Fattal on this interpretation of FARA. Though I think he misses something about DOJ’s argument that became clear (or, arguably, changed) last fall, that DOJ is not just arguing that the trolls themselves are unregistered foreign agents, but that they tricked innocent Americans into being agents. And DOJ surely assumed it would likely never prosecute any of those charged, unless one of the human targets foolishly decided to vacation in Prague or Spain or any other country with extradition treaties with the US. So the indictment was a calculated risk, a risk that may not have paid off.

But that’s why it’s worth understanding the decision to drop the prosecution based off the record, rather than presumptions about DOJ and the Russia investigation.

Just the funding side of the conspiracy to defraud indictment got dropped

The first step to understanding why DOJ dropped the charges is to understand what the two Concord entities were charged with. The indictment as a whole charged eight counts:

  • Conspiracy to defraud the United States for preventing DOJ and FEC from policing our campaign finance and election system (and State for issuing visas)
  • Conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud by using stolen identities to open financial accounts with which to evade PayPal’s security
  • Six counts of aggravated identity theft for stealing the identities of Americans used in the wire and bank fraud

The wire and bank fraud charges remain untouched by DOJ’s decision. If any of those defendants shows up in court, DOJ remains fully prepared to hold them accountable for stealing Americans’ identities to thwart PayPal’s security protocols so as to fool Americans into doing Russia’s work. Such an identity theft prosecution would not rely on the aggressive FARA theory the Concord charge does.

Even still, most of the conspiracy to defraud (ConFraudUS) charge remains.

The two Concord entities were only named in the ConFraudUS charge. The overt acts involving Concord entail funding the entire operation and hiding those payments by laundering them through fourteen different affiliates and calling the payments “software support.”

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

[snip]

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

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

b. By in or around September 2016, the ORGANIZATION’s monthly budget for Project Lakhta submitted to CONCORD exceeded 73 million Russian rubles (over 1,250,000 U.S. dollars), including approximately one million rubles in bonus payments.

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

Concord was likely included because it tied Prigozhin into the conspiracy, and through him, Vladimir Putin. That tie has been cause for confusion and outright disinformation during the course of the prosecution, as during pretrial motions there were two legal fights over whether DOJ could or needed to say that the Russian state had a role in the operation. Since doing so was never necessary to legally prove the charges, DOJ didn’t fight that issue, which led certain useful idiots to declare, falsely, that DOJ had disclaimed any tie, which is either absurd misunderstanding of how trials work and/or an outright bad faith representation of the abundant public evidence about the ties between Prigozhin and Putin.

By including Concord, the government asserted that it had proof not just that IRA’s use of fake identities had prevented DOJ and the FEC from policing electoral transparency, but also that Putin’s go-to guy in the private sector had used a series of shell companies to fund that effort.

By dropping the charges against the shell companies, that link is partly broken, but the overall ConFraudUS charge (and the charge against Prigozhin) remains, and all but one of the defendants are now biological persons who, if they mounted a defense, would also face criminal penalties that might make prosecution worth it. (I believe the Internet Research Agency has folded as a legal institution, so it would not be able to replay this farce.)

Going to legal war with a shell company

As noted, the indictment included two shell companies — Concord Management and Concord Catering — among the defendants in a period when Russia has increasingly pursued lawfare to try to discredit our judicial system. That’s precisely what happened: Prigozhin hired lawyers who relished trolling the courts to try to make DOJ regret it had charged the case.

As ceded above, DOJ surely didn’t expect that anyone would affirmatively show up to defend against this prosecution. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have the evidence to prove the crimes — both the first level one that bots hid their identities to evade electoral protections, and the second level conspiracy that Prigozhin funded all that through some shell companies. But it likely means DOJ didn’t account for the difficulties of going to legal war against a shell company.

One of the two explanations the government offered for dropping the prosecution admits that the costs of  trying a shell company have come to outweigh any judicial benefits.

When defense counsel first appeared on behalf of Concord, counsel stated that they were “authorized” to appear and “to make representations on behalf” of Concord, and that Concord was fully subjecting itself to the Court’s jurisdiction. 5/9/18 Tr. 5 (ECF No. 9). Though skeptical of Concord’s (but not counsel’s) asserted commitments at the initial appearance, the government has proceeded in good faith—expending the resources of the Department of Justice and other government agencies; incurring the costs of disclosing sensitive non-public information in discovery that has gone to Russia; and, importantly, causing the Court to expend significant resources in resolving dozens of often-complex motions and otherwise ensuring that the litigation has proceeded fairly and efficiently. Throughout, the government’s intent has been to prosecute this matter consistent with the interests of justice. As this case has proceeded, however, it has become increasingly apparent to the government that Concord seeks to selectively enjoy the benefits of the American criminal process without subjecting itself to the concomitant obligations.

From the start, there were ongoing disputes about whether the shell company Concord Management was really showing up to defend against this conspiracy charge. On May 5, 2018, DOJ filed a motion aiming to make sure that — given the uncertainty that Concord had been properly served with a summons, since, “Acceptance of service is ordinarily an indispensable precondition providing assurance that a defendant will submit to the jurisdiction of the court, obey its orders, and comply with any judgment.” Concord’s lawyers responded by complaining that DOJ was stalling on extensive discovery requests Concord made immediately.

Next, an extended and recurrent fight over a protective order for discovery broke out. Prigozhin was personally charged in the indictment along with his shell company. The government tried to prevent defense attorneys from sharing discovery deemed “sensitive” with officers of Concord (Prighozhin formally made himself an officer just before this effort started) who were also defendants without prior approval or at least a requirement such access to take place in the United States, accompanied by a defense attorney lawyer. That fight evolved to include a dispute about whether “sensitive” discovery was limited to just Personally Identifiable Information or included law enforcement sensitive information, too (unsurprisingly, Concord said it only wanted the latter and even demanded that DOJ sift out the former). The two sides established a protective order at start. But in December, after the government had delivered 4 million documents, of which it deemed 3.2 million “sensitive,” Concord renewed their demand that Prighozhin have access to discovery. They trollishly argued that only Prigozhin could determine whether the proper translation of the phrase “Putin’s chef” meant he was the guy who cooked for Putin or actually Putin’s boss. At this point, the US started filing sealed motions opposing the discovery effort, but did not yet resort to the Classified Information Procedures Act, meaning they still seemed to believe they could prove this case with unclassified, albeit sensitive, evidence.

Shortly thereafter, DOJ revealed that nothing had changed to alter the terms of the original protective order, and in the interim, some of the non-sensitive discovery (that is, the stuff that could be shared with Prigozhn) had been altered and used in a disinformation campaign.

The subsequent investigation has revealed that certain non-sensitive discovery materials in the defense’s possession appear to have been altered and disseminated as part of a disinformation campaign aimed (apparently) at discrediting ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. political system. These facts establish a use of the non-sensitive discovery in this case in a manner inconsistent with the terms of the protective order and demonstrate the risks of permitting sensitive discovery to reside outside the confines of the United States.

With a biological defendant, such a stunt might have gotten the defendant thrown in jail (and arguably, this is one of two moments when Judge Dabney Friedrich should have considered a more forceful response to defiance of her authority). Here, though, the prosecution just chugged along.

Perhaps the best proof that Prigozhin was using Concord’s defense as an intelligence-collecting effort came when, late last year, Concord demanded all the underlying materials behind Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control decision to sanction Prigozhin and his companies. As Friedrich noted in her short notation denying the request, OFAC’s decision to sanction Prigozhin had nothing to do with the criminal charges against Concord. Nevertheless, Prigozhin used the indictment of his shell companies in an attempt to obtain classified information on the decision leading to sanctions being imposed on him.

Prigozhin’s goal of using his defense as a means of learning the US government’s sources and methods was clear from the first discovery request. That — and his unwavering efforts to continue the trolling operations — likely significantly influenced the later classification determination that contributed to DOJ dropping the case.

The government intended to try this case with unclassified information

That’s the other cited reason the government dismissed this case: because a classification determination made some of the evidence collected during the investigation unavailable as unclassified information.

[A]s described in greater detail in the classified addendum to this motion, a classification determination bearing on the evidence the government properly gathered during the investigation, limits the unclassified proof now available to the government at trial. That forces the prosecutors to choose between a materially weaker case and the compromise of classified material.

At the beginning of this case, the government said that all its evidence was unclassified, but that much of it was sensitive, either for law enforcement reasons or the privacy of victims in the case.

As described further in the government’s ex parte affidavit, the discovery in this case contains unclassified but sensitive information that remains relevant to ongoing national security investigations and efforts to protect the integrity of future U.S. elections. At a high level, the sensitive-but-unclassified discovery in this case includes information describing the government’s investigative steps taken to identify foreign parties responsible for interfering in U.S. elections; the techniques used by foreign parties to mask their true identities while conducting operations online; the relationships of charged and uncharged parties to other uncharged foreign entities and governments; the government’s evidence-collection capabilities related to online conduct; and the identities of cooperating individuals and, or companies. Discovery in this case contains sensitive information about investigative techniques and cooperating witnesses that goes well beyond the information that will be disclosed at trial.

Nevertheless, after the very long and serial dispute about how information could be shared with the defendant noted above (especially Prigozhin, as an officer of Concord), later in the process, something either became classified or the government decided they needed to present evidence they hadn’t originally planned on needing.

This is one way, Barr critics suggest, that the Attorney General may have sabotaged the prosecution: by deeming information prosecutors had planned to rely on classified, and therefore making key evidence inaccessible for use at trial.

That’s certainly possible! I don’t rule out any kind of maliciousness on Barr’s part. But I think the available record suggests that the government made a good faith classification decision, possibly in December 2019 or January 2020, that ended up posing new difficulties for proving the case at trial. One possibility is that, in the process of applying a very novel interpretation of FARA to this prosecution, the types of evidence the government needed to rely on may have changed. It’s also possible that Prigozhin’s continued trolling efforts — and maybe even evidence that his trolling operations had integrated lessons learned from discovery to evade detection — made sharing heretofore sensitive unclassified information far more damaging to US national security (raising its classification level).

As discussed below, the record also suggests that the government tried to access some evidence via other means, by subpoenaing it from Concord. But Concord’s ability to defy subpoenas without punishment (which gets back to trying to prosecute a shell company) prevented that approach.

The fight over what criminalizes a troll conspiring to fool DOJ (and FEC)

Over the course of the prosecution, the theory of the ConFraudUS conspiracy either got more detailed (and thereby required more specific kinds of evidence to prove) or changed. That may have contributed to changing evidentiary requirements.

Even as the dispute about whether Concord was really present in the court fighting these charges, Concord’s lawyers challenged the very novel application of FARA by attacking the conspiracy charge against it. This is precisely what you’d expect any good defense attorney to do, and our judicial system guarantees any defendant, even obnoxious Russian trolls who refuse to actually show up in court, a vigorous defense, which is one of the risks of indicting foreign corporate persons.

To be clear: the way Concord challenged the conspiracy charge was often frivolous (particularly in the way that Concord’s Reed Smith lawyers, led by Eric Dubelier, argued it). The government can charge a conspiracy under 18 USC § 371 without proving that the defendant violated the underlying crimes the implementation of which the conspiracy thwarted (as Friedrich agreed in one of the rulings on Concord’s efforts). And on one of the charged overt acts — the conspiracy to hide the real purpose of two reconnaissance trips to the US on visa applications — Concord offered only a half-hearted defense; at trial DOJ would likely have easily proven that when IRA employees came to the US in advance of the operation, they lied about the purpose of their travel to get a visa.

That said, while Concord never succeeded in getting the charges against it dismissed, it forced DOJ to clarify (and possibly even alter) its theory of the crime.

That started as part of a motion to dismiss the indictment based on a variety of claims about the application of FARA to conspiracy, arguing in part that DOJ had to allege that Concord willfully failed to comply with FECA and FARA. The government argued that that’s not how a ConFraudUS charge works — that the defendants don’t have to be shown to be guilty of the underlying crimes. Concord replied by claiming that its poor trolls had no knowledge of the government functions that their secrecy thwarted. Friedrich posed two questions about how this worked.

Should the Court assume for purposes of this motion that neither Concord nor its coconspirators had any legal duty to report expenditures or to register as a foreign agent?

Specifically, should the Court assume for purposes of this motion that neither Concord nor its co-conspirators knowingly or unknowingly violated any provision, civil or criminal, of FECA or FARA by failing to report expenditures or by failing to register as a foreign agent?

The government responded by arguing that whether or not the Russian trolls had a legal duty to register, their deception meant that regulatory agencies were still thwarted.

As the government argued in its opposition and at the motions hearing, the Court need not decide whether the defendants had a legal duty to file reports with the FEC or to register under FARA because “the impairment or obstruction of a governmental function contemplated by section 371’s ban on conspiracies to defraud need not involve the violation of a separate statute.” United States v. Rosengarten, 857 F.2d 76, 78 (2d Cir. 1988); Dkt. No. 56, at 9-13. Moreover, the indictment alleges numerous coordinated, structured, and organized acts of deception in addition to the failure to report under FECA or to register under FARA, including the use of false social media accounts, Dkt. No. 1 ¶¶ 32-34, 36, the creation and use of U.S.- based virtual computer infrastructure to “mask[] the Russian origin and control” of those false online identities, id. ¶¶ 5, 39, and the use of email accounts under false names, id. ¶ 40. The indictment alleges that a purpose of these manifold acts of deception was to frustrate the lawful government functions of the United States. Id. ¶ 9; see also id. ¶ 5 (alleging that U.S.-based computer infrastructure was used “to avoid detection by U.S. regulators and law enforcement”); id. ¶ 58 (alleging later obstructive acts that reflect knowledge of U.S. regulation of conspirators’ conduct). Those allegations are sufficient to support the charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States regardless of whether the defendants agreed to engage in conduct that violated FECA or FARA because the “defraud clause does not depend on allegations of other offenses.”

Friedrich ruled against the trolls, except in doing so stated strongly that the government had conceded that they had to have been acting to impair lawful government functions, though not which specific relevant laws were at issue.

Although the § 371 conspiracy alleged does not require willfulness, the parties’ disagreement may be narrower than it first appears. The government concedes that § 371 requires the specific intent to carry out the unlawful object of the agreement—in this case, the obstruction of lawful government functions. Gov’t’s Opp’n at 16 (“Because Concord is charged with conspiring to defraud the United States, . . . the requisite mental state is the intent of impairing, obstructing, or defeating the lawful function of any department of government through deception.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Further, the government agrees that to form the intent to impair or obstruct a government function, one must first be aware of that function. See Hr’g Tr. at 40 (“[Y]ou can’t act with an intent to impair a lawful government function if you don’t know about the lawful government function.”). Thus, Concord is correct—and the government does not dispute—that the government “must, at a minimum, show that Concord knew what ‘lawful governmental functions’ it was allegedly impeding or obstructing.” Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss at 22; Def.’s Reply at 5. Here, as alleged in the indictment, the government must show that Concord knew that it was impairing the “lawful functions” of the FEC, DOJ, or DOS “in administering federal requirements for disclosure of foreign involvement in certain domestic activities.” Indictment ¶ 9. But Concord goes too far in asserting that the Special Counsel must also show that Concord knew with specificity “how the relevant laws described those functions.” Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss at 22; Def.’s Reply at 5. A general knowledge that U.S. agencies are tasked with collecting the kinds of information the defendants agreed to withhold and conceal would suffice.

Then Concord shifted its efforts with a demand for a Bill of Particulars. The demand itself — and the government’s opposition — included a demand for information about co-conspirators and VPNs, yet another attempt to get intelligence rather than discovery. But Friedrich granted the motion with respect to the application of FECA and FARA.

In other words, it will be difficult for the government to establish that the defendants intended to use deceptive tactics to conceal their Russian identities and affiliations from the United States if the defendants had no duty to disclose that information to the United States in the first place. For that reason, the specific laws—and underlying conduct—that triggered such a duty are critical for Concord to know well in advance of trial so it can prepare its defense.

The indictment alleges that the defendants agreed to a course of conduct that would violate FECA’s and FARA’s disclosure requirements, see Indictment ¶¶ 7, 25–26, 48, 51, and provides specific examples of the kinds of expenditures and activities that required disclosure, see id. ¶¶ 48– 57. Concord, 347 F. Supp. 3d at 50. But the indictment does not cite the specific statutory and regulatory disclosure requirements that the defendants violated. Nor does it clearly identify which expenditures and activities violated which disclosure requirements. Accordingly, the Court will order the government to:

  • Identify any statutory or regulatory disclosure requirements whose administration the defendants allegedly conspired to impair, along with supporting citations to the U.S. Code, Code of Federal Regulations, or comparable authority.
  • With respect to FECA, identify each category of expenditures that the government intends to establish required disclosure to the FEC. See, e.g., Indictment ¶ 48 (alleging that the defendants or their co-conspirators “produce[d], purchase[d], and post[ed] advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton”) (emphasis added)). The government must also identify for each category of expenditures which disclosure provisions the defendants or their co-conspirators allegedly violated.
  • With respect to FARA, identify each category of activities that the government intends to establish triggered a duty to register as a foreign agent under FARA. See, e.g., id. ¶ 48 (same); id. ¶ 51 (alleging that the defendants or their coconspirators “organized and coordinated political rallies in the United States” (emphasis added)). The government must also identify for each category of activities which disclosure provisions the defendants or their co-conspirators allegedly violated.

In a supplemental motion for a bill of particulars, Concord asked which defendants were obliged to file with DOJ and FEC.

That came to a head last fall. In a September 16, 2019 hearing, both sides and Friedrich discussed at length precisely what the legal theory behind the conspiracy was. On Friedrich’s order, the government provided Concord a list of people (whose names were redacted) that,

the defendants conspired to cause some or all of the following individuals or organizations to act as agents of a foreign principal while concealing from those individuals that they were acting as agents of a foreign principal [who should register under FARA].

That is, whether or not this was the original theory of the case, by last fall the government made it clear that it wasn’t (just) Prigozhin or his trolls who needed to register; rather, it was (also) the Americans who were duped into acting and spending money on their behalf. But because they didn’t know they were working on behalf of a foreign principal, they did not register.

Meanwhile, in a motion for clarification, the government argued that it had always intended to include foreigners spending money in the indictment. Friedrich held that that had not actually been included in the original indictment.

These two issues — the claim that duped Americans would have had to register if they knew they were working with a foreign agent, and the need to strengthen the assertion about foreign campaign expenditures — forced the government to go back and supersede the original indictment.

DOJ obtains a superseding indictment with more specific (and potentially new) theories of the case

On November 8, 2019, the government obtained a superseding indictment to include language about foreign donations that Friedrich had ruled was not in the original indictment and language covering the duped Americans who had unknowingly acted as agents of Russian trolls.

New language in the superseding indictment provided more detail of reporting requirements.

¶1 U.S. law also requires reporting of certain election-related expenditures to the Federal Election Commission.

[snip]

U.S. also imposes an ongoing requirement for such foreign agents to register with the Attorney General.

The paragraph explaining the means of the ConFraudUS added detail about what FEC, DOJ, and State functions the trolls’ deceit had thwarted.

¶7 In order to carry out their activities to interfere in the U.S. political and electoral processes without detection of their Russian affiliation, Defendants conspired to obstruct through fraud and deceit lawful functions of the United States government in monitoring, regulating, and enforcing laws concerning foreign influence on and involvement in U.S. elections and the U.S. political system. These functions include (a) the enforcement of the statutory prohibition on certain election-related expenditures by foreign nationals; (b) the enforcement of the statutory requirements for filing reports in connection with certain election-related expenditures; (c) the enforcement of the statutory ban on acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal in the United States; (d) the enforcement of the statutory requirements for registration as an agent of a foreign principal (e) the enforcement of the requirement that foreign national seeking entry into the United States provide truthful and accurate information to the government. The defendants conspired to do so by obtaining visas through false and fraudulent statements, camouflaging their activities by foreign nationals as being conducted by U.S. persons, making unlawful expenditures and failing to report expenditures in connection with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and failing to register as foreign agents carrying out political activities within the United States, and by causing others to take these actions.

These allegations were repeated in ¶9 in the section laying out the ConFraudUs count.

The superseding indictment added a section describing what FEC and DOJ do.

¶25 One of the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission is to monitor and enforce this prohibition. FECA also requires that individuals or entities who make certain independent expenditures in federal elections report those expenditures to the Federal Election Commission. Another lawful government function of the Federal Election Commission is to monitor and enforce this reporting requirement.

[snip]

¶26 The U.S. Department of Justice enforces the Foreign Agent Registration Act (“FARA”), which makes it illegal to act in the United States as an “agent of a foreign principal,” as defined at Title 22, United States Code, Section 661(c), without following certain registration, reporting, and disclosure requirements established by the Act. Under FARA, the term “foreign principal” includes foreign non-government individuals and entities. FARA requires, among other things, that persons subject to its requirements submit periodic registration statements containing truthful information about their activities and income earned from them. One of the lawful government functions of the Department of Justice is to monitor and enforce this registration, reporting, and disclosure regime.

In perhaps the most interesting addition, the superseding indictment also added language to include the actions of unwitting Americans.

¶48 …and caused unwitting persons to produce, purchase, and post advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton. Defendants and their co-conspirators did not report these expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, or register as foreign agents with the U.S. Department of Justice, nor did any of the unwitting persons they caused to engage in such activities.

The superseding indictment repeated this “unwitting” language in ¶51.

This superseding indictment is significant for two reasons, given the dismissal of the count against the two Concord defendants. First, the possibly changed theory of the conspiracy may have changed what evidence the government needed to prove the crime. For example, it may be that DOJ has evidence of IRA employees acknowledging, for the period of this indictment, that spending money on these activities was illegal, whether or not they knew they had to report such expenditures. It may be that DOJ has evidence of communications between the trolls and actual Americans they otherwise wouldn’t have had to rely on. It may be that DOJ has evidence about the regulatory knowledge of those same Americans about their own reporting obligations. Some of this evidence might well be classified.

Just as importantly, if Bill Barr wanted to jettison this prosecution, he could have done so last November by refusing to permit the superseding indictment. That likely would have undermined the case just as surely (and might have led Friedrich to dismiss it herself), and would have been far better for Trump’s messaging. Moreover, from that point in time, it would have been clear that trial might introduce evidence of how three Trump campaign officials coordinated (unknowingly) with the Russian trolls, something bound to embarrass Trump even if it posed no legal hazard. If Barr had wanted to undermine the prosecution to benefit Trump, November would have been the optimal time to do that, not February and March.

While it’s not clear whether this superseding indictment changed certain evidentiary challenges or not, three key strands of activity that seem to have resulted in the dismissal started only after the superseding: an effort to authenticate digital evidence on social media activity, an effort to subpoena some of that same evidence, and the CIPA process to try to substitute for classified information.

The government goes to some lengths to try to pre-approve normally routine evidence

The last of those efforts, chronologically, may hint at some of the evidentiary issues that led DOJ to drop the case.

In a motion submitted on February 17, the government sought to admit a great deal of the social media and related forensic data in the case. In many trials, this kind of evidence is stipulated into evidence, but here, Concord had been making it clear it would challenge the evidence at trial. So the government submitted a motion in limine to try to make sure it could get that evidence admitted in advance.

Among the issues raised in the motion was how the government planned to authenticate the IP addresses that tied the IRA trolls to specific Facebook and Twitter accounts and other members of the conspiracy (Prigozhin, Concord, and the interim shell companies) to each other. The government redacted significant sections of the filing describing how it intended to authenticate these ties (see, for example, the redaction on page 8, which by reference must discuss subscriber information and IP addresses, and footnote 7 on page 9, the redaction pertaining to how they were going to authenticate emails on page 16, the very long redaction on how they would authenticate emails between IRA and Concord starting on page 17, and the very long redaction on how they were going to authenticate Prigozhin to the IRA starting on page 21).

Concord got special permission to write an overly long 56-page response. Some of it makes it clear they’re undermining the government’s efforts to assert just that, for example on IP addresses.

IP addresses, subscriber information, and cookie data are not self-authenticating. The first link in the government’s authentication argument is that IP addresses,6 subscriber information, and cookie data are self-authenticating business records under Rules 803(6) and 902(11). But the cases the government cites are easily distinguishable and undercut its argument.

6 The IP addresses do not link an account to a specific location or fixed address. For example, for the Russian IP addresses the government indicates that they were somewhere within the city of St. Petersburg, Russia.

[snip]

It should come as no surprise then, given the lack of reliability and untrustworthiness in social media evidence such as that the government seeks to introduce, that the case law forecloses the government’s facile effort at authentication of content here. Unlike Browne, Lewisbey, and the other cases cited above, the government has offered no social media accounts bearing the name of any alleged conspirator and no pictures appearing to be a conspirator adorning such page.7 Nor has the government pointed to a single witness who can testify that she saw a conspirator sign up for the various social media accounts or send an email, or who can describe patterns of consistency across the various digital communications to indicate they come from the same source.

7 The government has indicated to Concord that it intends to introduce at trial Fed. R. Evid. 1006 summaries of IP address records, apparently to create the link between the social media accounts and IRA that is not addressed in the motion. See Ex. B, Jan. 6, 2020 letter. Despite repeated requests from undersigned counsel, the government has identified the 40 social media accounts for it intends to summarize but has not provided the summaries or indicated when it will do so.

Some of this is obviously bullshit, particularly given the government’s contention, elsewhere, that Concord (or IRA, if it was a typo) had dedicated IP addresses. Mostly, though, it appears to have been an attempt to put sand in the wheels of normal criminal prosecution by challenging stuff that is normally routine. That doesn’t mean it’s improper, from a defense standpoint. But given how often DOJ’s nation-state indictments rely on such forensic evidence, it’s a warning about potential pitfalls to them.

The government resorts to CIPA

Even while the government had originally set out to prove this case using only unclassified information, late in the process, it decided it needed to use the Classified Information Procedures Act. That process is where one would look for any evidence that Barr sabotaged the prosecution by classifying necessary evidence (though normally the approval for CIPA could come from Assistant Attorney General for National Security Division John Demers, who is not the hack that Barr is).

In October 2019, Friedrich had imposed a deadline for CIPA if the government were going to use it, of January 20, 2020.

On December 17, the government asked for a two week delay, “to ensure appropriate coordination within the Executive Branch that must occur prior to the filing of the motion,” a request Friedrich denied (even though Concord did not oppose it). This was likely when the classification determination referenced in the motion to withdraw was debated, given that such determinations would dictate what prosecutors had to do via CIPA.

On January 10, 2020, the government filed its first motion under CIPA Section 4, asking to substitute classified information for discovery and use at trial. According to the docket, Friedrich discussed CIPA issues at a hearing on January 24. Then on January 29 and February 10, she posted classified orders to the court security officer, presumably as part of the CIPA discussion.

On February 13, the government asked for and obtained a one-day extension to file a follow-up CIPA filing, from February 17 to February 18, “to complete necessary consultation within the Executive Branch regarding the filing and to ensure proper supervisory review.” If Barr intervened on classification issues, that’s almost certainly when he did, because this happened days after Barr intervened on February 11 in Roger Stone’s sentencing and after Jonathan Kravis, who had been one of the lead prosecutors in this case as well, quit in protest over Barr’s Stone intervention. At the very least, in the wake of that fiasco, Timothy Shea made damn sure he ran his decision by Barr. But the phrase, “consultation within the Executive Branch,” certainly entertains consultation with whatever agency owned the classified information prosecutors were deciding whether they could declassify (and parallels the language used in the earlier request for a filing extension). And Adam Jed, who had been part of the Mueller team, was added to the team not long before this and remained on it through the dismissal, suggesting nothing akin to what happened with Stone happened here.

The government submitted its CIPA filing on the new deadline of February 18, Friedrich issued an order the next day, the government filed another CIPA filing on February 20, Friedrich issued another order on February 28.

Under CIPA, if a judge rules that evidence cannot be substituted, the government can either choose not to use that evidence in trial or drop the prosecution. It’s likely that Friedrich ruled that, if the government wanted to use the evidence in question, they had to disclose it to Concord, including Prigozhin, and at trial. In other words, that decision — and the two earlier consultations (from December to early January, and then again in mid-February) within the Executive Branch — are likely where classification issues helped sink the prosecution.

It’s certainly possible Bill Barr had a key role in that. But there’s no explicit evidence of it. And there’s abundant reason to believe that Prigozhin’s extensive efforts to use the prosecution as an intelligence-gathering exercise both for ongoing disinformation efforts and to optimize ongoing trolling efforts was a more important consideration. Barr may be an asshole, but there’s no evidence in the public record to think that in this case, Prigozhin wasn’t the key asshole behind a decision.

DOJ attempts to treat Concord as a legit party to the court’s authority

Even before that CIPA process started playing out, beginning on December 3, the government pursued an ultimately unsuccessful effort to subpoena Concord. This may have been an attempt to obtain via other means evidence that either had been obtained using means that DOJ had since decided to classify or the routine authentication of which Concord planned to challenge.

DOJ asked to subpoena a number of things that would provide details of how Concord and Prigozhin personally interacted with the trolls. Among other requests, the government asked to subpoena Concord for the IP addresses it used during the period of the indictment (precisely the kind of evidence that Concord would later challenge).

3. Documents sufficient to identify any Internet Protocol address used by Concord Management and Consulting LLC from January 1, 2014 to February 1, 2018.

Concord responded with a load of absolute bullshit about why, under Russian law, Concord could not comply with a subpoena. Judge Friedrich granted the some of the government’s request (including for IP addresses), but directed the government to more narrowly tailor its other subpoena requests.

On December 20, the government renewed its request for other materials, providing some evidence of why it was sure Concord had responsive materials. Concord quickly objected again, again wailing mightily. In its reply, the government reminded Friedrich that she had the ability to order Concord to comply with the subpoena — and indeed, had gotten Concord’s assurances it would comply with orders of the court when it first decided to defend against the charges. It even included a declaration from an expert on Russian law, Paul Stephan, debunking many of the claims Concord had made about Russian law. Concord wailed, again. On January 24, Friedrich approved the 3 categories of the subpoena she had already approved. On January 29, the government tried again, narrowing the request even to — in one example — specific days.

Calendar entries reflecting meetings between Prigozhin and “Misha Lakhta” on or about January 27, 2016, February 1, 2016, February 2, 2016, February 14, 2016, February 23, 2016, February 29, 2016, May 22, 2016, May 23, 2016, May 28, 2016, May 29, 2016, June 7, 2016, June 27, 2016, July 1, 2016, September 22, 2016, October 5, 2016, October 23, 2016, October 30, 2016, November 6, 2016, November 13, 2016, November 26, 2016, December 3, 2016, December 5, 2016, December 29, 2016, January 19, 2017, and February 1, 2017.

Vast swaths of the motion (and five exhibits) explaining why the government was sure that Concord had the requested records are sealed. Concord responded, wailing less, but providing a helpful geography lesson to offer some alternative explanation for the moniker “Lakhta,” which the government has long claimed was the global term for Prigozhin’s information war against the US and other countries.

But the government fails to inform the Court that “Lakhta” actually means a multitude of other things, including: Lake Lakhta, a lake in the St. Petersburg area, and Lakhta Center, the tallest building in Europe, which is located in an area within St. Petersburg called the Lakhta-Olgino Municipal Okrug.

On February 7, Friedrich largely granted the government’s subpoena request, approving subpoenas to get communications involving Prigozhin and alleged co-conspirators, as well as records of payments and emails discussing them.  That same day and again on February 21, Concord claimed that it had communicated with the government with regards to the subpoenas, but what would soon be clear was non-responsive.

On February 27, the government moved to show cause for why Concord should not be held in contempt for blowing off the subpoenas, including the request for IP addresses and the entirety of the second subpoena (for meetings involving Prigozhin and records of payments to IRA). Concord wailed in response. The government responded by summarizing Concord’s response:

Concord’s 18-page pleading can be distilled to three material points: Concord’s attorneys will not make any representations about compliance; Concord will not otherwise make any representations about compliance; and Concord will not comply with a court order to send a representative to answer for its production. The Court should therefore enter a contempt order and impose an appropriate sanction to compel compliance.

Friedrich issued an order that subpoena really does mean subpoena, demanding some kind of representation from Concord explaining its compliance.  In response, Prigozhin sent a declaration partly stating that his businesses had deleted all available records, partly disclaiming an ability to comply because he had played games with corporate structure.

With respect to category one in the February 10, 2020 trial subpoena, Concord never had any calendar entries for me during the period before I became General Director, and I became General Director after February 1, 2018, so no searches were able to be performed in Concord’s documents. Concord did not and does not have access to the previous General Director’s telephone from which the prosecution claims to have obtained photographs of calendars and other documents, so Concord is unable to confirm the origin of such photographs.

He claimed to be unable to comply with the request for IP addresses because his contractors “cannot” provide them.

In order to comply with category three in the trial subpoena dated January 24, 2020, in Concord’s records I found contracts between Concord and Severen-Telecom JSC and Unitel LLC, the two internet service providers with which Concord contracted between January 1, 2014 and February 1, 2018. Because these contracts do not identify the internet protocol (“IP”) addresses used by Concord during that period, on January 7, 2020 I sent letters on behalf of Concord to Severen-Telecom JSC and Unitel LLC transmitting copies of these contracts and requesting that the companies advise as to which IP addresses were provided to or used by Concord during that period. Copies of these letters and English translations, as well as the attached contracts, are attached as Exhibits 2 and 3. Severen-Telecom JSC responded in writing that the requested information cannot be provided. A copy of Severen-Telecom JSC’s letter and an English translation are attached as Exhibit 2. Unitel LLC responded that information regarding IP addresses cannot be provided. A copy of Unitel LLC’s letter and an English translation of is attached as Exhibit 3. Accordingly, Concord does not have any documents that could be provided in response to category three (3) of the January 24, 2020 subpoena.

The government responded by pointing out how bogus Prigozhin’s declaration was, not least his insistence that any oligarch like him would really be the person in charge of his companies’ record-keeping. It also described evidence — which is redacted — that Concord had an in-house IT provider at the time (though notes that “as the Court knows, it appears that Concord [sic; this is probably IRA] registered and maintained multiple dedicated IP addresses during the relevant time period”). It further noted that the date that Prigozhin claimed his company started destroying records after 3 months perfectly coincided to cover the start date of this subpoena. In short, it provided fairly compelling evidence that Prigozhin, after agreeing that his company would be subject to the authority of the court when it first filed an appearance in the case, was trolling the court from the safety of Russia.

On March 5, Judge Friedrich nevertheless allowed that bullshit response in her court and declined to hold Concord in contempt. Eleven days later, the government moved to dismiss the case.

The government files the motion to dismiss before the evidentiary dispute finishes but after the subpoena and CIPA fail

On March 16 — 17 days after what appears to be the final CIPA order and 11 days after Friedrich declined to hold Concord or Prigozhin in contempt, and one day before the government was due to file a follow-up to its motion in limine to authenticate normally routine evidence in the case — the government moved to dismiss the case.

While it’s unclear what evidence was deemed to be classified late in the prosecution (likely in December), it seems fairly clear that it affected (and possibly was a source or method used to collect) key forensic proof in the case. It’s also unclear whether an honest response to the government’s trial subpoenas would have replaced that evidence.

What is clear, however, is that there is sufficient explanation in the public record to support the government’s explanation — that Prigozhin was using the prosecution to reap benefits of obtaining information about US government efforts to thwart his activities without risking anything himself. And whether or not the government would be able to prove its case with the classification and CIPA decisions reflected in the docket, the trial itself would shift more evidence into the category of information that would get shared with Prigozhin.

None of that disproves that Barr sabotaged the case. But it does provide sufficient evidence to explain why DOJ dismissed the case, without assuming that Barr sabotaged it.

Other cases of interest

As noted above, not only do the identity theft related charges remain, but so does the ConFraudUS case for all the biological defendants, including Prigozhin. It may be that, given the opportunity to imprison Prigozhin in the highly unlikely event that he ever showed up in the US for trial, the classification trade-offs would be very different.

But there are three other legal issues of interest, given this outcome.

First, there’s one more unsurprising detail about the superseding indictment: It also included an end-date, January 2018. That’s not surprising because adding later activities probably would presented all sorts of problems given how advanced the trial was last November. But it’s also significant because it means double jeopardy would not attach for later activities. So the government could, if the calculus on classification ever changed, simply charge all the things Prigozhin and his trolls have been doing since January 2018 in an indictment charged under its revised theory.

That’s particularly significant given that, in September 2018, prosecutors in EDVA charged Prigozhin’s accountant, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova. Even at the time, I imagined it might be a vehicle to move the IRA prosecution if anything happened to it in DC. Unsurprisingly, given that she’s the accountant at the center of all this, the Khusyaynova complaint focused more closely on the money laundering part of the prosecution. Plus, that complaint incorporated evidence of Prigozhin’s trolls reveling in their own indictment, providing easy proof of knowledge of the legal claims DOJ made that didn’t exist for the earlier indictment. None of that would change the calculus around classified evidence (indeed, some of the overt acts described in the Khusyaynova complaint seem like the kind of evidence that Prigozhin would have turned over had he complied with the Concord subpoena. So there is another vehicle for such a prosecution, if DOJ wanted to pursue it.

Finally, Prigozhin has not succeeded with all his attempts to wage lawfare in support of his disinformation efforts. In January, he lost his bid to force Facebook to reinstate his fake news site, Federal Agency of News, based off an argument that because Facebook worked so closely with the government, it cannot exercise its own discretion on its private site. As I laid out here, the suit intersected with both the IRA indictment and Khusyaynova complaint, and engaged in similar kinds of corporate laundry and trollish bullshit. The decision was a no-brainer decision based on Section 230 grounds, giving providers immunity when they boot entities from their services. But the decision also confirms what is already evident: when it comes to shell companies in the business of trolling, thus far whack-a-mole removals have worked more consistently than seemingly symbolic prosecution.

DOJ may well revisit how it charged this to try to attach a FARA liability onto online disinformation. But ultimately the biological humans, not the corporation shells or the bots, need to be targeted.

At First, KT McFarland Told a Similarly Misleading Version of the Story Mike Flynn Will Be Pardoned For

In his abundant free time, the President tweeted about pardoning Mike Flynn on Sunday.

According to Matt Gertz, this was a response to a Lou Dobbs segment with John Solomon where Dobbs said there are 302s that “can’t be found.” Per transcripts Gertz shared, this is a reference to Sidney Powell’s claim — repeated with Dobbs the day before — that the first draft of Flynn’s 302 is missing (she also complained that Flynn never received a January 2017 memo stating that DOJ did not believe Flynn was an agent of Russia, which is unrelated to whether he was an agent of Turkey or lied to the FBI about his interactions with Russia).

Emmet Sullivan has already judged Trump’s complaint to be baseless

In December, Emmet Sullivan already judged this complaint to be baseless because the notes written before any “original 302” and all the 302s already provided Flynn track each other and the 302s consistently capture Flynn’s lies.

Mr. Flynn speculates that the government is suppressing the “original 302” of the January 24, 2017 interview, Def.’s Reply, ECF No. 133 at 28; he claims that the lead prosecutor “made it sound like there was only one 302,” id. at 29; and he makes a separate request for the FBI to search for the “original 302” in one of the FBI’s databases, id. at 28-30. In Mr. Flynn’s view, the “original 302”—if it exists—may reveal that the interviewing FBI agents wrote in the report “their impressions that [Mr.] Flynn was being truthful.” Id. at 28. Mr. Flynn claims that the FBI destroyed the “original 302” to the extent that it was stored in the FBI’s files. Id. at 30. Comparing draft FD-302s of Mr. Flynn’s January 24, 2017 interview to the final version, Mr. Flynn claims that the FBI manipulated the FD-302 because “substantive changes” were made after reports that Mr. Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian Ambassador “contrary to what Vice President Pence had said on television previously.” Id. at 14-15. Mr. Flynn points to the Strzok-Page text messages the night of February 10, 2017 and Ms. Page’s edits to certain portions of the draft FD-302 that were “material.” Def.’s SurSurreply, ECF No. 135 at 8-9.

To the extent Mr. Flynn has not already been provided with the requested information and to the extent the information exists, the Court is not persuaded that Mr. Flynn’s arguments demonstrate that he is entitled to the requested information. For starters, the Court agrees with the government that there were no material changes in the interview reports, and that those reports track the interviewing FBI agents’ notes.

[snip]

Having carefully reviewed the interviewing FBI agents’ notes, the draft interview reports, the final version of the FD302, and the statements contained therein, the Court agrees with the government that those documents are “consistent and clear that [Mr. Flynn] made multiple false statements to the [FBI] agents about his communications with the Russian Ambassador on January 24, 2017.” Gov’t’s Surreply, ECF No. 132 at 4-5. The Court rejects Mr. Flynn’s request for additional information regarding the drafting process for the FD-302s and a search for the “original 302,” see Def.’s Sur-Surreply, ECF No. 135 at 8- 10, because the interviewing FBI agents’ notes, the draft interview reports, the final version of the FD-302, and Mr. Flynn’s own admissions of his false statements make clear that Mr. Flynn made those false statements.

Even though a judge has already ruled that this complaint is baseless, Trump took a break from mismanaging a pandemic to inch closer to a Flynn pardon based on it.

Given the increasing likelihood Trump will use the cover of the epidemic to pardon Flynn, it’s worth pointing to another set of evidence that Flynn’s prosecution for lying was sound: he’s not the only one who tried to cover up the Trump Transition’s efforts to undercut President Obama’s sanctions on Russia.

Like Flynn, KT McFarland hid Trump Transition efforts to undercut sanctions at first

In FBI interview reports (302s) released in the BuzzFeed/CNN FOIAs, some details of KT McFarland’s interviews prior to his guilty plea have been released. McFarland was interviewed four times before Flynn’s plea deal became public: August 29 (this 302 has not yet been released), September 14, October 17, and October 19, 2017.  Those 302s show that, at first, KT McFarland downplayed the Trump Transition efforts to undermine Obama’s sanctions on Russia that Mike Flynn got fired and prosecuted for (as well as tried to protect Jared Kushner in his role trying to undercut Obama policies on Israeli settlements).

McFarland’s first interview, on August 29, came in the wake of Mueller’s team acquiring Transition emails from the General Services Administration without notice to the campaign, followed by a warrant to read them. It’s likely her (still unreleased) initial interview and the beginning of her second one were based off a presumption that some emails making it clear the Transition had discussed sanctions would not get shared with Mueller’s team. When she got showed them, she claimed not to remember all details about them.

Her initial interview, as noted, has not been released. The unredacted passages from her second one (she did all pre-Flynn interviews without a lawyer, but in the presence of her spouse, who is a lawyer) show she shaded the truth about things she should have known the FBI had counter-evidence to. (In what follows, I’m bolding things she said in early interviews that her later testimony contradicts.)

For example, in that second interview, McFarland professed to not recall who attended a Presidential Daily Brief on December 28, 2016 where sanctions were discussed.

McFarland was shown a calendar entry for December 28, 2016 and confirmed the entry would have represented a PDB. She sat in the briefing, but did not recall who was there besides [Deputy Director of National Intelligence Edward] Gistaro. It was a small number of people and it took place in a basement studio apartment in the hotel.

Note: Gistaro had already testified at least once before this interview, on June 14, but that was likely focused on Trump’s demand that Dan Coats “help with the [Russian] investigation.” But it’s certainly possible his is one of the interviews in the interim that remain undisclosed.

In addition to her vague memories about meetings at Mar-a-Lago, McFarland also claimed she “did not recall any conversations she may have had with Flynn the day sanctions were announced.” While her description of what Flynn told her about his call with Sergey Kislyak is largely redacted, it’s clear she told the FBI it pertained to “Russian President Putin’s desire for a contemporary video conference after the inauguration.” This is the cover story Flynn asked her to tell the press in January 2017, and it’s part of what Flynn got fired for. Yet she was still relying on it in an interview with the FBI seven months later.

In her third interview, McFarland admitted that sanctions may have come up, but claimed again not to have specific knowledge of it.

News that the Obama Administration planned to impose sanctions on Russia started to come out on December 28, 2016, but they had not been officially announced and specifics were unknown. Sanctions were just one of “several and many things” going on at that time. McFarland, who was in Mar-a-Lago with the President-elect, did not recall what specific conversations she had at which times or to whom she spoke, but sanctions were in the news so it would make sense to her they were among the topics discussed.

In this interview report, McFarland’s explanation for an email involving Tom Bossert discussing sanctions is redacted, but the unredacted parts claim,

McFarland never discussed the specific terms of the sanctions with anyone. She would have told Michael Flynn about how the session with the President-elect went during one of their phone calls.

This claim would have been especially sketchy to the FBI since Flynn had already told the FBI, in January, that he only learned about sanctions from those at Mar-a-Lago.

McFarland also claimed not to remember what she discussed with Flynn when.

She did not have specific recollections about the times of the calls with Flynn or what was discussed in which call. Flynn mentioned several times several issues he intended to discuss with the Russians, and McFarland believed she would have given her theories about the sanctions.

McFarland’s memory started to grow clearer after outlines of Flynn’s testimony were released when he pled guilty on December 1, 2017.

McFarland’s post-Flynn plea memories grow significantly clearer

As the Mike Flynn cooperation addendum laid out, one reason Flynn’s reluctant cooperation was useful is it led others — including, but not limited to, McFarland — to unforget the truth.

[T]he defendant’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate likely affected the decisions of related firsthand witnesses to be forthcoming with the SCO and cooperate. In some instances, individuals whom the SCO interviewed before the defendant’s guilty plea provided additional, relevant details about their knowledge of key events after his cooperation became publicly.

Days after Flynn’s guilty plea, on December 5, she must have realized that he had given testimony that contradicted hers and informed FBI agents she was in the process of lawyering up. McFarland asked one of the FBI Agents she had been interacting with for the Tom Bossert and Mike Flynn emails she had already testified about, which were included in a December 2 NYT story on Flynn’s plea.

McFarland asked whether SSA [redacted] could provide two emails which he and SA [redacted] had shown to her in her interviews. She did not have the emails, but they were now apparently widely held, including by the New York Times, which published, but grossly misrepresented them. The emails were one from her dated December 29, 2016 in which she discussed President Obama’s three political objectives in imposing sanctions and mentioned Flynn’s scheduled call with the Russian ambassador that evening; and an email from Flynn to her the next day, December 30, 2017, in which Flynn reported on his conversation with the ambassador. McFarland felt she was at a a disadvantage since “everyone in the world” had copies of the emails except for her.

McFarland’s fourth 302 — which the Mueller Report heavily relies on — is heavily redacted. But what’s not redacted shows McFarland remembering details about conversations she had had about sanctions that she had professed not to remember in her earlier interviews.

McFarland and Bannon met on December 29. [redacted] but they also talked about sanctions. [redacted] Bannon told McFarland the sanctions would hurt their ability to have good relations with Russia. [redacted] Bannon thought a Russian escalation would make things more difficult. McFarland thought she told him Flynn was scheduled to talk to the Russian ambassador later that night. [redacted]

McFarland stated that she may have run into Priebus and given him a short version of her conversation with Bannon about the sanctions. [redacted] She may have told Priebus that Flynn was scheduled to talk to the Russian ambassador that night, but was not sure.

[redacted]

McFarland and Flynn spoke on the telephone at around 4:00 pm on December 29.

[redactions and snip]

McFarland knew before the [sic] Flynn’s call that Flynn was going to feel out the Russian ambassador on the overall relationship, knowing that the sanctions would influence it.

There’s a heavily redacted section that nevertheless shows that McFarland provided significant details about the meeting with Trump on December 29 (including that Trump “said he had reason to doubt it was the Russians” who had hacked the DNC). Even with the redactions, it’s clear she discussed what might happen with the sanctions at that meeting. And she admitted that “someone may have mentioned Flynn’s scheduled call with Kislyak as they were ending the meeting.”

Additionally, McFarland laid out all the details of conversations with Flynn she had previously claimed not to remember, both before and after his calls with Kislyak.

[Flynn] told McFarland the Russian response was not going to be escalatory because they wanted a good relationship with the Trump administration.

[snip]

When Flynn and McFarland spoke on December 31, Flynn told McFarland he talked to the Russian ambassador again. He said something to the effect of “Well, they want a better relationship. The relationship is back on track.” Flynn said it was a good call and he thought his own call had made a difference but not the only difference. [redacted] McFarland congratulated Flynn for his work.

In short, contrary to what she claimed in her earlier interviews, McFarland proved she had memories of:

  • Discussions she had with at least Steve Bannon about sanctions before Flynn’s call with Sergey Kislyak, and possibly Reince Priebus
  • The specific times of at least some of her calls with Flynn
  • Details of the meeting at which sanctions were discussed with Trump
  • Specific details of calls between her and Flynn, both before and after his calls with Kislyak

McFarland is not the only one whose memory grew clearer after it became clear Mueller had heard at least one truthful version of what had transpired in late December 2017; the story Bannon initially told, even after Flynn’s plea, almost certainly evolved as well (his later interviews have been withheld thus far, but we know his memories about the WikiLeaks releases got clearer over time). Reince Priebus’ first interview, on October 13, 2017, has not yet been released. The tiny unredacted bits of Priebus’ Janaury 18, 2018 interview, conducted in the wake of Flynn’s plea, showed that he hedged but did admit they may have discussed Flynn’s call in advance.

The consistency with which those who were present at Mar-a-Lago on December 29, 2017 tried not to remember discussing sanctions in advance of General Flynn’s calls, much less what might have gone down with Trump, suggests this is not a matter of Flynn being a rogue liar. Rather, it suggests a concerted effort to downplay what happened and to minimize any involvement Trump had in it, one that was undercut by Flynn’s plea deal.

One story downplaying efforts to undermine sanctions is a lie; multiple stories is a cover-up

That’s why no one should credit Trump’s claims to believe that Flynn was mistreated in his prosecution. Not only has Judge Sullivan ruled that it’s not true, but the available evidence — even with proof that Bill Barr’s DOJ is abusing the FOIA response process to hide the true extent of all this — shows that multiple people with consistent memories of what happened at Mar-a-Lago on December 29, 2017 initially professed not to remember what happened that day.

That’s not Flynn being ambushed and improperly prosecuted. That’s Flynn — who up until he decided to plead guilty was part of the Joint Defense Agreement with the President and others — being the first break in an effort to cover-up what really went down.

And the public record has one more highly damning detail that shows Flynn knew from the start that this was a cover-up.

In the section of the Mueller Report incorporating details Flynn and McFarland unforgot in November and December 2017, it reveals that Flynn intentionally excluded the details about the Kislyak follow-up call about sanctions when he sent McFarland a text message reporting on the call.

The next day, December 30, 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov remarked that Russia would respond in kind to the sanctions. 1262 Putin superseded that comment two hours later, releasing a statement that Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the sanctions at that time. 1263 Hours later President-Elect Trump tweeted, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin).” 1264 Shortly thereafter, Flynn sent a text message to McFarland summarizing his call with Kislyak from the day before, which she emailed to Kushner, Bannon, Priebus, and other Transition Team members. 1265 The text message and email did not include sanctions as one of the topics discussed with Kislyak. 1266 Flynn told the Office that he did not document his discussion of sanctions because it could be perceived as getting in the way of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.1267

[snip]

According to McFarland, Flynn remarked that the Russians wanted a better relationship and that the relationship was back on track. 1270 Flynn also told McFarland that he believed his phone call had made a difference. 1271 McFarland recalled congratulating Flynn in response. 1272 [my emphasis]

In her second interview, months before she unforgot that they had had a self-congratulatory conversation about Flynn’s success in undermining Obama’s efforts to punish Russian for interfering in the election, McFarland also claimed not to be concerned that Flynn hadn’t mentioned sanctions in a text he sent her after the call. “She did not recall being concerned that Flynn did not mention sanctions in this email.”

Except that it would not be a matter of concern. It would be a matter of knowing that Flynn had created a false record of what happened. And months later, she would admit that she did know that was a false record. This appears to be the text (which she forwarded as an email) that she tried to obtain from the FBI once she realized that Flynn had flipped.

None of this will prevent Trump from pardoning Flynn. But it does provide reason why Judge Reggie Walton should review the 302s of those involved in the December 2017 events even as he reviews the full Mueller Report, which almost certainly includes an explanation of why Mueller did not charge McFarland for her initial misleading comments. The public deserves to have all the evidence that, in pardoning Flynn, Trump won’t be pardoning someone he believes to have been ambushed and who as a result told a misleading story. He’ll be pardoning the one person who paid a price for covering up the Trump Transition’s efforts to undercut sanctions imposed to punish Russia for tampering in the 2016 election.

Adam Schiff Totally Gutted the Section 215 Notice Provision in the FISA Reauthorization Bill

I’m working on a series of posts about the bill reauthorizing Section 215 that will be pushed through Congress today. Effectively, Adam Schiff took the Jerry Nadler bill, watered down some key provisions, but added a bunch of symbolic certifications that would do nothing to eliminate the kinds of problems in the Carter Page application, probably are less effective than certifications presiding FISA judge James Boasberg required the other day, but give Republicans who are too stupid to understand FISA the ability to claim victory.

One of the ways that Schiff has watered down the Nadler bill is particular alarming. It effectively guts efforts to require notice to defendants for Section 215. Here’s the language in his bill:

(2) USE IN TRIALS, HEARINGS, OR OTHER PROCEEDINGS.—For purposes of subsections (b) through (h) of section 106—

(A) information obtained or derived from the production of tangible things pursuant to an investigation conducted under this section shall be deemed to be information acquired from an electronic surveillance pursuant to title I, unless the court or other authority of the United States finds, in response to a motion from the Government, that providing notice to an aggrieved person would harm the national security of the United States; and

(B) in carrying out subparagraph (A), a person shall be deemed to be an aggrieved person if

(i) the person is the target of such an investigation; and

(ii) the activities or communications of the person are described in the tangible things that the Government intends to use or disclose in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding.

Here’s Nadler’s original language:

(2) USE IN TRIALS, HEARINGS, OR OTHER PROCEEDINGS.—For purposes of subsections (b) through (h) of section 106—

(A) information obtained or derived from the production of tangible things pursuant to an investigation conducted under this section shall be deemed to be information acquired from an electronic surveillance pursuant to title I; and

(B) in carrying out subparagraph (A), a person shall be deemed to be an aggrieved person if—

(i) the person is the target of such an investigation; or

(ii) the activities or communications of the person are described in any tangible thing collected pursuant to such an investigation.

As it was, Nadler’s language had a loophole, in that it changed the definition of aggrieved person. Under 18 USC §1801, an aggrieved person is anyone who is either the target or who has been caught up in a wiretap or other collection targeting them.

“Aggrieved person” means a person who is the target of an electronic surveillance or any other person whose communications or activities were subject to electronic surveillance.

Under Nadler’s bill, someone is aggrieved only if they are the “target” of “such an investigation. But “investigation” there seems to pertain to the original 215 order, meaning that if someone started a second investigation into someone based off information discovered in 215 (which is often used for lead generation) it’s not even clear they would count as the target, even if they were the ones being prosecuted or put on a no-fly list or some such thing.

Still, under Nadler’s bill, that person would likely still get notice if their activities — say, buying a pressure cooker or access a certain website — would have been collected using the 215 order.

But Schiff’s bill utterly guts even that. He does so in three ways.

Working from the bottom, Schiff requires that you be both the target of the investigation and that your activities or communications got collected under 215. It appears to mean that only those who are the target of the original 215 order would be aggrieved (there are still a number of bulky orders that don’t target any person, so if an investigation arose out of a lead from such bulky orders, no one would ever be aggrieved under this definition).

Then, Schiff only counts someone as aggrieved if the government will introduce the evidence collected under 215 order. That is, if someone is targeted in part for buying a pressure cooker, but the pressure cooker lead led to a bunch of other evidence, that person might never count as aggrieved even if the original investigation into her came from purchasing a pressure cooker.

Plus, this language seems to invite parallel construction. If the government wanted to introduce evidence of that pressure cooker purchase, they could just subpoena the store directly.

Finally, and most outrageously, the government can still move not to give that notice based on a claim that providing it “would harm to the national security of the United States.” Outrageously, they don’t even have to convince a judge that such harm is real. A court “or other authority of the United States” could agree with such a finding. The Attorney General is “an authority of the United States.” So Attorney General Bill Barr — the father of the first subpoena based dragnet — could make a motion saying that notice of a dragnet would harm the national security of the United States, and Attorney General Bill Barr could agree with Bill Barr that that’s the case.

This is how the whole dragnet problem started in the first place, when, in 1992, Bill Barr decided that he could authorized secret dragnets.

It’s hard to believe the bill would make such ridiculous changes unless there were something DOJ is trying to hide. Whatever the reason, this language utterly guts the notice provision, while still pretending it actually does include one.

In a Totally Unresponsive Response to Reggie Walton’s Order, Kerri Kupec Does Not Deny that Bill Barr Misrepresented the Mueller Report

Yesterday, Bill Barr’s flack Kerri Kupec issued a statement purporting to rebut what Reggie Walton (whom she didn’t name) wrote in his scathing opinion suggesting that Barr’s bad faith misrepresentations of the Mueller Report meant he couldn’t trust DOJ’s representations now about the FOIA redactions in it.

Yesterday afternoon, a district court issued an order on the narrow legal question of whether it should review the unredacted Special Counsel’s confidential report to confirm the report had been appropriately redacted under the Freedom of Information Act. In the course of deciding that it would review the unredacted report, the court made a series of assertions about public statements the Attorney General made nearly a year ago. The court’s assertions were contrary to the facts. The original redactions in the public report were made by Department attorneys, in consultation with senior members of Special Counsel Mueller’s team, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and members of the Intelligence Community. In response to FOIA requests, the entire report was then reviewed by career attorneys, including different career attorneys with expertise in FOIA cases–a process in which the Attorney General played no role. There is no basis to question the work or good faith of any of these career Department lawyers. The Department stands by statements and efforts to provide as much transparency as possible in connection with the Special Counsel’s confidential report. [my emphasis]

It is being treated as a good faith response to what Walton wrote.

Except it’s not. It’s entirely off point.

Walton’s explanation for why he will conduct his own review of the the Mueller Report redactions doesn’t focus on the FOIA response itself. He addresses what happened before the redacted version of the Mueller Report was first released, before the FOIA review actually started.

The Court has grave concerns about the objectivity of the process that preceded the public release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report and its impacts on the Department’s subsequent justifications that its redactions of the Mueller Report are authorized by the FOIA.

[snip]

the Court is troubled by his hurried release of his March 24, 2019 letter well in advance of when the redacted version of the Mueller Report was ultimately made available to the public. The speed by which Attorney General Barr released to the public the summary of Special Counsel Mueller’s principal conclusions, coupled with the fact that Attorney General Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings set forth in the Mueller Report, causes the Court to question whether Attorney General Barr’s intent was to create a one-sided narrative about the Mueller Report—a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version of the Mueller Report. [my emphasis]

That process preceded the FOIA response entirely, so the part of Kupec’s statement talking about the “good faith” of the “career Department lawyers” (of the sort that Barr is undermining with glee elsewhere) is irrelevant. And Kupec’s claim that Barr was not involved in that later process is also unrelated to whether he was involved in the initial redaction process, a question she doesn’t address.

As Walton notes, the redactions in the FOIA release exactly match those in the initial release, though the justifications are entirely different, which may mean those career attorneys had to come up with exemptions to match the outcome of the process in which Barr was involved.

[D]espite the Department’s representation that it “review[ed] the full unredacted [Mueller] Report for disclosure pursuant to the FOIA,” Brinkmann Decl. ¶ 11, the Court cannot ignore that the Department’s withholdings under the FOIA exemptions mirror the redactions made pursuant to Attorney General Barr’s guidance, which cause the Court to question whether the redactions are self-serving and were made to support, or at the very least to not undermine, Attorney General Barr’s public statements and whether the Department engaged in post-hoc rationalization to justify Attorney General Barr’s positions.

Kupec doesn’t even try to address the central claim of Walton’s opinion: that Barr’s public statements — about whether the report showed “coordination” or “collusion,” and about whether it showed Trump obstructed the investigation — conflict with what it already evident in the unredacted parts of the redacted Report.

As noted earlier, the Court has reviewed the redacted version of the Mueller Report, Attorney General Barr’s representations made during his April 18, 2019 press conference, and Attorney General Barr’s April 18, 2019 letter. And, the Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report. The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr’s statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller Report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller Report that conflict with those statements cause the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary.

These circumstances generally, and Attorney General Barr’s lack of candor specifically, call into question Attorney General Barr’s credibility and in turn, the Department’s representation that “all of the information redacted from the version of the [Mueller] Report released by [ ] Attorney General [Barr]” is protected from disclosure by its claimed FOIA exemptions. Brinkmann Decl. ¶ 11 (emphasis added). In the Court’s view, Attorney General Barr’s representation that the Mueller Report would be “subject only to those redactions required by law or by compelling law enforcement, national security, or personal privacy interests” cannot be credited without the Court’s independent verification in light of Attorney General Barr’s conduct and misleading public statements about the findings in the Mueller Report, id., Ex. 7 (April 18, 2019 Letter) at 3, and it would be disingenuous for the Court to conclude that the redactions of the Mueller Report pursuant to the FOIA are not tainted by Attorney General Barr’s actions and representations.

That is, Walton judges that Barr’s lies about the Mueller Report tainted the subsequent process, no matter how many career Department attorneys were involved.

Significantly, Kupec offers no rebuttal — none — to Walton’s judgement that Barr misrepresented what the Report showed.

As I have noted, it’s unlikely Walton will release much more than was originally released (though he will surely be prepared to release all of the Roger Stone related materials once Amy Berman Jackson lifts that gag). But the three or four places where he might all undermine the tales that Barr told about the Report. Unsealing those redactions would:

  • Explain how the President and his son failed to cooperate
  • Confirm that his son (and possibly his son-in-law) was a subject of the investigation
  • Reveal how several of Trump’s flunkies told concerted lies before they decided to start telling the truth
  • Show why Mueller seriously considered indicting Stone — and possibly even the President himself — for their actions encouraging the hack-and-leak operation

Moreover, on one key point — the redactions for privacy that in the FOIA review were exempted under b6 and b7C — Barr’s initial claims about redactions are an obvious lie: he said those redactions hid “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.” Among the people the initial review treated as “peripheral third parties” are Donald Trump Jr. and Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland; in Judge Jackson’s review in the Roger Stone trial, redactions protecting privacy and reputational interests even included the President himself.

Importantly, Walton’s in camera review will be critical for the next step, which will be a review of DOJ’s unprecedented b5 exemptions, which already show abundant evidence of politicization (and in which there is good reason to believe Barr has been involved). By reading the declination decisions pertaining to people like KT McFarland, Walton will understand how improper it is to redact her later 302s while releasing her earlier, deceitful ones.

If Kupec would like to do her job rather than play a key role in Barr’s ongoing propaganda effort about the Report, she can explain what role Barr had in that initial review, something not addressed in her off point comment. Even better, she can explain why the redactions on the underlying materials like 302s are so obviously politicized.

But given that she’s not even willing to deny that Barr misrepresented the initial report, I doubt she’ll issue any statement that offers useful commentary on this process.

Mueller Told Trump He Was Being Investigated for Hacking, Wire Fraud, and Mail Fraud

Having followed Carol Leonnig’s reporting since the Scooter Libby case, I’m thrilled she finally wrote — with Philip Rucker — a book, A Very Stable Genius. She is one of the reporters who mixes an ability to read public records with very good sourcing. And while attentive readers of this site will be familiar with much of the reporting in Stable Genius, there are tidbits that make the book well worth your time.

One example is a description of the discussions between Trump’s lawyers and Mueller’s team from summer 2018. In the middle of a description of talks between Jane Raskin and James Quarles, the book reveals that Quarles told Trump’s team that the President was being investigated for hacking, wire fraud, and mail fraud.

In early September 2018, Trump’s lawyers finally reached a conclusion with Mueller over his request for a presidential interview. Trump’s lawyers had argued to prosecutors all summer why they didn’t believe it was necessary to provide the president’s responses to their questions and tried to appear open to a possible compromise for him to provide limited answers. The discussion took the form of a volley of emails and memos between Trump’s lawyer Jane Raskin and her old law firm friend James Quarles.

Some of the correspondence was rudimentary. The Trump lawyers wanted to know what criminal statutes Mueller’s team was investigating as possible crimes and why this would require answers from the president. Raskin’s shorthand version was something to the effect of “You have told us our client is the subject of the investigation and you won’t even tell us what you are looking at.” It took roughly three weeks to get an answer to that question. Quarles responded that the statutes governed the criminal acts of hacking, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as the very general crimes of wire fraud and mail fraud. Trump’s lawyers shrugged. That’s it? That’s useless, they said to each other. They were certain the president hadn’t engaged in any of those crimes.

Mueller’s team would be silent for long stretches, especially later in the summer. At one point, Quarles told the Trump lawyers that it was important to ask about the president’s view of events surrounding his pursuit of the Trump Tower Moscow project, as well as his role in describing Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer who was expected to provide damaging information on Clinton. Raskin and her colleagues had a shared reaction: “What conceivably is criminal about that? Why do you want to ask about that?” The president’s team also argued that prosecutors were not entitled to question Trump on decisions he made as president because anything prosecutors needed to know from Trump’s time in office could be obtained from the thousands of documents and dozens of witnesses the White House had helped provide. [my emphasis]

That’s a fairly surprising detail!

There’s a heavily redacted section of the Mueller Report that explains why they didn’t charge someone under CFAA (PDF 187) that might pertain to Don Jr’s use of a password to access a WikiLeaks related website before it was public, or might pertain to some skiddies who tried to access Guccifer 2.0’s social media accounts who were investigated in Philadelphia.

More interesting is the 3-page redaction, starting at PDF 186 in the FOIA version, that footnote 1278 makes clear pertains to the publishing of post-hacking emails. That may well related exclusively to WikiLeaks, but it was redacted under exemptions tied to Roger Stone’s case.

And filings in the Roger Stone case — most explicitly, this opinion from Amy Berman Jackson — make it clear that Mueller’s team had shown probable cause to obtain warrants against Stone including CFAA and wire fraud charges as late as August 28, 2018. (The numbering Stone’s lawyers used does not match the timeline, so search warrant 18 is not the last; see footnote 2 of the opinion for the dates of the warrants, which I’ve tracked in the Mueller warrant docket.)

Fourteen of the eighteen warrant applications sought authorization to search for evidence of, among other crimes, the intentional unauthorized access of computers in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1030. See SW1-SW13, SW18.

[snip]

The fourteen affidavits also sought to search for evidence of violations of other crimes, including 18 U.S.C. § 2 (aiding and abetting), 18 U.S.C. § 3 (accessory after the fact), 18 U.S.C. § 4 (misprison of  a felony), 18 U.S.C. § 371 (conspiracy), 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (false statements), 18 U.S.C. § 1505 (obstruction of justice); 18 U.S.C. § 1512 (tampering with a witness), 18 U.S.C. § 1513 (retaliating against a witness), 18 U.S.C. § 1343 (wire fraud), 18 U.S.C. § 1349 (attempt and conspiracy to commit wire fraud), and 52 U.S.C. § 30121 (foreign contributions ban).

This accords with the timing laid out in Stable Genius: during the period when Quarles and Raskin discussed possible charges against Trump, Stone was still under investigation for hacking or abetting hacks after the fact. And we know from public records that Stone’s efforts to optimize the WikiLeaks releases occurred in close coordination with Trump himself.

This detail may take on renewed import given Reggie Walton’s decision to review the redaction decisions on the Mueller Report himself. DOJ institutionally redacted some details — and sustained those redactions even when Stone asked for an unredacted copy of the Mueller Report — to protect Trump’s privacy.

I still maintain that Walton will release little more than what has already been released, if at all (pending the lifting of the Stone gag, at which point Walton will release everything currently redacted under it).

But if there’s a passage that explains why Mueller considered charging Stone — and possibly even Trump! — with CFAA charges for so long, which would, in turn, explain why Trump worked so hard to obstruct the investigation, Walton might find a way to release it.

Questioning Bill Barr’s “No Collusion” Propaganda, Reggie Walton Orders an In Camera Review of Mueller Report

Before the Trump Administration started really politicizing justice, Reggie Walton had already proven himself willing to stand up to the Executive Branch. During the George W Bush Administration, he presided over the Scooter Libby trial, never shirking from attacks from the defendant. And in the first year of the Obama Administration, as presiding FISA Judge, he shut down parts of the phone dragnet and the entire Internet dragnet because they were so far out of compliance with court orders.

And Walton had already showed his impatience with Trump’s stunts, most notably when presiding over a FOIA for materials related to the firing of Andrew McCabe. He finally forced DOJ to give the former Deputy FBI Director a prosecution declination so he could proceed with the FOIA lawsuit.

So it’s unsurprising he’s unpersuaded by DOJ’s request to dismiss the EPIC/BuzzFeed lawsuits over their FOIAs to liberate the Mueller Report, and has ordered DOJ to provide him a copy of the Report before the end of the month to do an in camera review of redactions in it.

The Court has grave concerns about the objectivity of the process that preceded the public release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report and its impacts on the Department’s subsequent justifications that its redactions of the Mueller Report are authorized by the FOIA. For the reasons set forth below, the Court shares the plaintiffs’ concern that the Department “dubious[ly] handl[ed] [ ] the public release of the Mueller Report.” EPIC’s Mem. at 40; see also id. (“Attorney General[] [Barr’s] attempts to spin the findings and conclusions of the [Mueller] Report have been challenged publicly by the author of the [Mueller] Report. [ ] Attorney[] General[] [Barr’s] characterization of the [Mueller] [R]eport has also been contradicted directly by the content of the [Mueller] Report.”); Leopold Pls.’ Mem. at 9 (“[T]here have been serious and specific accusations by other government officials about improprieties in the [Department’s] handling and characterization of the [Mueller] Report[.]”). Accordingly, the Court concludes that it must conduct an in camera review of the unredacted version of the Mueller Report to assess de novo the applicability of the particular exemptions claimed by the Department for withholding information in the Mueller Report pursuant to the FOIA.

To justify this review, Walton cites Barr’s silence about the multiple links between Trump and Russians and about the reason why Mueller didn’t make a decision about charging Trump with obstruction.

Special Counsel Mueller himself took exception to Attorney General Barr’s March 24, 2019 letter, stating that Attorney General Barr “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of th[e] [Special Counsel’s] Office’s work and conclusions,” EPIC’s Mot., Ex. 4 (March 27, 2019 Letter) at 1, and a review of the redacted version of the Mueller Report by the Court results in the Court’s concurrence with Special Counsel Mueller’s assessment that Attorney General Barr distorted the findings in the Mueller Report. Specifically, Attorney General Barr’s summary failed to indicate that Special Counsel Mueller “identified multiple contacts—‘links,’ in the words of the Appointment Order—between Trump [c]ampaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government,” Def.’s Mot., Ex. D (Mueller Report – Volume I) at 66, and that Special Counsel Mueller only concluded that the investigation did not establish that “these contacts involved or resulted in coordination or a conspiracy with the Trump [c]ampaign and Russia, including with respect to Russia providing assistance to the [Trump] [c]ampaign in exchange for any sort of favorable treatment in the future,” because coordination—the term that appears in the Appointment Order—“does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law,” id., Ex. D (Mueller Report – Volume I) at 2, 66. Attorney General Barr also failed to disclose to the American public that, with respect to Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into whether President Trump obstructed justice, Special Counsel Mueller “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment[,] . . . recogniz[ing] that a federal criminal accusation against a sitting [p]resident would place burdens on the [p]resident’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct,” but nevertheless declared that

if [he] had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that [ ] President [Trump] clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, [he] would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, [he] [is] unable to reach that judgment. The evidence [he] obtained about [ ] President[] [Trump’s] actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent [him] from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while th[e] [Mueller] [R]eport does not conclude that [ ] President [Trump] committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

Id., Ex. D (Mueller Report – Volume II) at 1–2.

Walton further cites claims that Barr made in his April 18 press conference and letter — where he specifically claimed Mueller had found no evidence of collusion — to judge that Barr lacked candor in his statements about the report.

Similar statements were made in his April 18, 2019 letter. See Def.’s Mot., Ex. 7 (April 18, 2019 Letter) at 1–3 (stating that Special Counsel Mueller’s “bottom-line conclusion on the question of so-called ‘collusion’ [was] [that] [t]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump [c]ampaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities” and that “the evidence set forth in the [ ] [Mueller] [R]eport was [not] sufficient to establish that [ ] President [Trump] committed an obstruction-of-justice offense”).

As noted earlier, the Court has reviewed the redacted version of the Mueller Report, Attorney General Barr’s representations made during his April 18, 2019 press conference, and Attorney General Barr’s April 18, 2019 letter. And, the Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report. The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr’s statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller Report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller Report that conflict with those statements cause the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary.

[snip]

Here, although it is with great consternation, true to the oath that the undersigned took upon becoming a federal judge, and the need for the American public to have faith in the judicial process, considering the record in this case, the Court must conclude that the actions of Attorney General Barr and his representations about the Mueller Report preclude the Court’s acceptance of the validity of the Department’s redactions without its independent verification.

Walton doesn’t say it explicitly, but he seems to believe what the unredacted portions of the report show amount to “collusion,” the kind of collusion Trump would want to and did (and still is) covering up.

Be warned, however, that this review is not going to lead to big revelations in the short term.

There are several reasons for that. Many of the most substantive redactions pertain to the Internet Research Agency and Roger Stone cases. Gags remain on both. While Walton is not an Article II pushover, he does take national security claims very seriously, and so should be expected to defer to DOJ’s judgments about those redactions.

Where this ruling may matter, though, is in four areas:

  • DOJ hid the circumstances of how both Trump and Don Jr managed to avoid testifying under a grand jury redaction. Walton may judge that these discussions were not truly grand jury materials.
  • DOJ is currently hiding details of people — like KT McFarland — who lied, but then cleaned up their story (Sam Clovis is another person this may be true of). There’s no reason someone as senior as McFarland should have her lies protected. All the more so, because DOJ is withholding some of the 302s that show her lies. So Walton may release some of this information.
  • Because Walton will have already read the Stone material — that part that most implicates Trump — by the time Judge Amy Berman Jackson releases the gag in that case, he will have a view on what would still need to be redacted. That may mean more of it will be released quickly than otherwise might happen.
  • In very short order, the two sides in this case will start arguing over DOJ’s withholding of 302s under very aggressive b5 claims. These claims, unlike most of the redactions in the Mueller Report, are substantively bogus and in many ways serve to cover up the details of Trump’s activities. While this won’t happen in the near term, I expect this ruling will serve as the basis for a similar in camera review on 302s down the road.

Update: Here’s the FOIA version of the Mueller Report; here is Volume II. The b1 and b3 redactions won’t be touched in this review. Where Walton might order releases are the b6, b7C redactions. I expect Walton may order these redactions removed, which show that Don Jr and someone else was investigated.

Update: I did a post last August about what Walton might do with these redactions. It holds up, IMO.

Amid Discussions of FISA Reform, James Boasberg Pushes for Greater Reform

It’s not entirely clear what will happen in a few weeks when several existing FISA provisions expire; there are ongoing discussions about how much to reform FISA in the wake of the Carter Page IG Report. But before anyone passes legislation, they would do well to read the order presiding FISA Judge James Boasberg issued yesterday.

On its face, Boasberg’s order is a response to DOJ’s initial response to FISC’s order to fix the process, Amicus David Kris’ response to that, and DOJ’s reply to Kris. The order ends by citing In re Sealed Case, the 2002 FISCR opinion that limited how much change the FISA Court can demand of DOJ, and “acknowledging that significant change can take time, and recognizing the limits of its authority.” By pointing to In re Sealed Case, Boasberg highlights the limits of what FISC can do without legislation from Congress — and, importantly, it highlights the limits of what FISC could do to improve the process if Bill Barr were to convince Congress that DOJ can fix any problems itself, without being forced to do so by Congress.

After invoking In Re Sealed Case, Boasberg orders reports (due March 27, May 4, May 22, June 30, and July 3) on the progress of a number of improvements. He orders that any DOJ or FBI personnel under disciplinary or criminal review relating to work on FISA applications may not participate in preparing applications for FISC, and he requires additional signoffs on applications, including Section 215 orders, which currently don’t require such affirmations.

Boasberg recognizes that DOJ, not just FBI, needs to change

Remarkably, Boasberg notes what I have — the IG Report provides evidence, its focus on FBI notwithstanding, that some of the blame for the Carter Page application belongs with DOJ, not FBI.

According to the OIG Report, the DOJ attorney responsible for preparing the Page applications was aware that Page claimed to have had some type of reporting relationship with another government agency. See OIG Rpt. at 157. The DOJ attorney did not, however, follow up to confirm the nature of that relationship after the FBI case agent declared it “outside scope.” Id. at 157, 159. The DOJ attorney also received documents that contained materially adverse information, which DOJ advises should have been included in the application. Id. at 169-170. Greater diligence by the DOJ attorney in reviewing and probing the information provided by the FBI would likely have avoided those material omissions.

As a result, Boasberg requires the DOJ attorney signing off on a FISA application to attest to the accuracy of it as well. He also suggests DOJ attorneys “participate in field-office visits to assist in the preparation of FISA applications.”

Boasberg recognizes that DOJ’s existing plan doesn’t address any root cause

Similarly, Boasberg recognizes that if the real problem with the Carter Page FISA applications involved information withheld from the application, improving the Woods procedure won’t fix the problem. In an extended section on oversight, Boasberg strongly suggested that DOJ needs to review whether information was withheld from the application.

Amicus agrees that reviews designed to elicit any pertinent facts omitted from the application, rather than merely verifying the facts that were included, would be extremely valuable, but also recognizes that such in-depth reviews would be extremely resource intensive. See Amicus Letter Br. at 12. He thus recommends that such reviews be conducted periodically at least in some cases and, echoing Samuel Johnson, advises that selection of cases for such reviews should be unpredictable because the possibility that any case might be reviewed “should help concentrate the minds of FBI personnel in all cases.” Id. In its response, the government advised that “it will expand its oversight to include additional reviews to determine whether, at the time an application is submitted to the FISC, there was additional information of which the Government was aware that should have been included and brought to the attention of the Court.” Resp. to Amicus at 13. DOJ advised, however, that given limited personnel to conduct such reviews, it is still developing a process for such reviews and a sampling methodology to select cases for review. ld. The Court sees value in more comprehensive completeness reviews, and random selection of cases to be reviewed should increase that value. As DOJ is still developing the necessary process and methodology, the Court is directing further reporting on this effort.

Amicus also encouraged the Court to require a greater number of accuracy reviews using the standard processes already in place. See Amicus Letter Br. at 12. He believes that the FBI and DOJ have the resources to ensure that auditing occurs in a reasonable percentage of cases and suggested that it might be appropriate to audit a higher percentage of certain types of cases, such as those involving U.S. persons, certain foreign-agent definitions, or sensitive investigative matters. Id. The government did not address Amicus’s recommendation that it increase the number of standard reviews.

Even though accuracy reviews are conducted after the Court has ruled on the application in question, the Court believes that they have some positive effect on future accuracy. In addition to guarding against the repetition of errors in any subsequent application for the same target, they should provide a practical refresher on the level of rigor that should be employed when preparing any FISA application. It is, however, difficult to assess to what extent accuracy reviews contribute to the process as a whole, partly because it is not clear from the information provided how many cases undergo such reviews. The Court is therefore directing further reporting on DOJ’s current practices regarding accuracy reviews, as well as on the results of such reviews.

Finally, the FBI has directed its Office of Integrity and Compliance to work with its Resource Planning Office to identify and propose audit, review, and compliance mechanisms to assess the effectiveness of the changes to the FISA process discussed above. See OIG Rpt. app. 2 at 429. Although the Court is interested in any conclusions reached by those entities, it will independently monitor the government’s progress in correcting the failures identified in the OIG Report.

Again, as I already noted, Boasberg himself found DOJ’s oversight regime inadequate in a 702 opinion written last year. He knows this is insufficient.

But as noted above, all Boasberg can do is order up reports and attestations.

At a minimum, Congress should put legal language behind the oversight he has now demanded twice.

A far better solution, however, would be to provide the oversight on FISA applications that other criminal warrant applications receive: review by defense attorneys in any cases that move to prosecution, which by itself would build in “unpredictabl[y] because the possibility that any case might be reviewed.”

James Boasberg, the presiding judge of the FISA court, issued an order in the middle of a debate about reform that points to several ways FISA should be improved, ways that the he can’t do on his own.

Congress would do well to take note.

The Frothy Right Is Complaining that Amy Berman Jackson Sentenced Roger Stone to 57% of Lower Guidelines

In the aftermath of the news of Roger Stone’s sentence yesterday, some of DOJ’s beat journalists are doing irresponsible pieces giving Bill Barr’s close associates anonymity to lie, with no pushback, about what happened.

Another Justice Department official called Stone’s sentence a “vindication” of the attorney general’s decision last week to insert himself into the process, calling for a revised sentencing memorandum that undercut the line prosecutors’ prior recommendation of seven to nine years in prison. Four prosecutors quit the Stone case over the disagreement, and current and former Justice Department officials grew alarmed Trump was short-circuiting the law enforcement agency’s traditional independence. More than 2,600 former employees have signed onto a letter calling on Barr to resign over his handling of the matter.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson in no way vindicated Bill Barr’s intervention, and any experienced DOJ reporter passing on the claim unchallenged is doing their readers a gross disservice.

Worse still, confusion about what happened yesterday has permitted the frothy right to attack ABJ for what was a lenient sentence.

So I’d like to show how ABJ came up with her sentence. It shows that ABJ sentenced Stone to 57% of the sentence she judged the guidelines call for.

Probation Recommendation: 70-87 months

Between the original sentencing memo and Stone’s own memo, we can obtain what probation initially recommended. It started with a base offense level for Stone’s Obstruction, False Statements, and Witness Tampering of 14 (which would result in a 15 to 21 month guidelines sentence). Then it added four enhancements (Stone even cites the paragraphs of the presentencing report where Probation recommended these enhancements). First, it called for an 8-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. §2J1.2(b)(1)(B), which reads (PDF 243):

If the offense involved causing or threatening to cause physical injury to a person, or property damage, in order to obstruct the administration of justice, increase by 8 levels.

Next, it called for a 3-level enhancement for substantial interference with the administration of justice under U.S.S.G. §2J1.2(b)(1)(2) (meaning, the obstruction worked):

If the offense resulted in substantial interference with the administration of justice, increase by 3 levels.

Probation called for a 2-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. §2J1.2(b)(3)(C) for the extensive nature of Stone’s obstruction:

If the offense … (C) was otherwise extensive in scope, planning, or preparation, increase by 2 levels.

Given a footnote in Stone’s memo (and something ABJ said in the hearing yesterday), it appears that the government objected to the original January 16 recommendation from the Probation office and convinced them to apply this enhancement.

Obstruction of Justice 2 U.S.S.G. §2J1.2(b)(3)(C) 2 level increase ¶77

2 Government’s Objection to Presentence Investigation Report, dated January 30, 2020.

Finally, it called for a 2-level enhancement U.S.S.G. §3C1.1 2 for obstruction of this proceeding (meaning, his prosecution for the original obstruction charge; this is at PDF 367).

If (1) the defendant willfully obstructed or impeded, or attempted to obstruct or impede, the administration of justice with respect to the investigation, prosecution, or sentencing of the instant offense of conviction, and (2) the obstructive conduct related to (A) the defendant’s offense of conviction and any relevant conduct; or (B) a closely related offense, increase the offense level by 2 levels.

The sentencing table can be found at PDF 415. It provides a range of 87 to 108 months for a first time offender, as Stone is.

According to the transcript, however, the final recommendation did not apply the 2-level enhancement for the extensive obstruction. That provides a range for 70-87 months.

Prosecution Recommendation: 87-108 months

In May 2017, Jeff Sessions issued an order stating that “prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” which are, “by definition … those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence.” It also stated that, “In most cases, recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate.”

ABJ noted this policy yesterday in the sentencing hearing.

And that’s what the prosecution team did — recommend the same 87 to 108 months the Probation Office came up with. They justified each of the enhancements in their sentencing memo.

They argued the witness tampering enhancement was justified — even in spite of Randy Credico’s letter asking for leniency — because Credico still expressed fear that Stone’s associates might respond to his threats by attacking him, and because the threat itself triggers the enhancement.

Pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2J1.2(b)(1)(B), eight levels are added because the offense “involved causing or threatening to cause physical injury to a person, or property damage, in order to obstruct the administration of justice.” As detailed above, as part of Stone’s campaign to keep Credico silent, Stone told Credico in writing, “Prepare to die, cocksucker.” Stone also threatened (again in writing) to “take that dog away from you.” Stone may point to the letter submitted by Credico and argue that he did not have a serious plan to harm Credico or that Credico did not seriously believe that Stone would follow through on his threats. But Credico testified that Stone’s threats concerned him because he was worried that Stone’s words, if repeated in public, might make “other people get ideas.” Tr. 11/8/19, at 795.

In any event, it is the threat itself, not the likelihood of carrying out the threat, that triggers the enhancement. Endeavoring to tamper with a witness can involve a wide range of conduct. This enhancement recognizes that when the conduct involves threats of injury or property damage, rather than simple persuasion for example, the base offense level does not accurately capture the seriousness of the crime. To apply the enhancement, there is no “additional ‘seriousness’ requirement beyond the fact of a violent threat.” See United States v. Plumley, 207 F.3d 1086, 1089-1091 (8th Cir. 2000) (applying § 2J1.2(b)(1)(B) to a defendant who told coconspirators to “‘keep our mouth shut,’ because if anyone cooperated with the police he would ‘kick our ass’”); United States v. Bakhtairi, 714 F.3d 1057, 1061 (8th Cir. 2013) (holding there was no seriousness requirement and applying § 2J1.2(b)(1) to a defendant who wrote a menacing email, displayed a loaded rifle to a law partner, and doctored photographs of witnesses children to “add . . . crosshairs”); United States v. Smith, 387 F.3d 826, (9th Cir. 2004) (applying § 2J1.2(b)(1)(B) to a defendant who threatened to kill a witness and “kick [her] ass,” and noting that § 2J1.2(b)(1) does not contain a “seriousness requirement”).

Prosecutors argued the 3-level enhancement for substantial interference was justified because Stone’s obstruction led HPSCI not to call Jerome Corsi and not to subpoena Corsi and Credico for documents, both of which led to errors in the HPSCI report.

Pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2J1.2(b)(2), three levels are added because the offense resulted in substantial interference with the administration of justice. Because of Stone’s conduct, the House Intelligence Committee never received important documents, never heard from Credico (who pled the Fifth), and never heard from Corsi (who was never identified to the Committee as the real “back-channel” that Stone had referenced in August 2016). The Committee’s report even wrongly stated that there was no evidence contradicting Stone’s claim that all his information about WikiLeaks was from publicly available sources.

Prosecutors argued that the multi-year effort Stone engaged in merited the 2-level enhancement because of his obstruction’s extensive scope.

Pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2B1.2(b)(3)(C), two levels are added because the offense was otherwise extensive in scope, planning, or preparation. Stone engaged in a multi-year scheme involving (1) false statements in sworn testimony; (2) the concealment of important documentary evidence; (3) further lies in a written submission to Congress; and (4) a relentless and elaborate campaign to silence Credico that involved cajoling, flattering, crafting forged documents, badgering, and threatening Credico’s reputation, friend, life, and dog. Stone’s efforts were as extensive, if not more extensive, than those of other defendants who received this two-level enhancement at sentencing. See, e.g., United States v. Petruk, 836 F.3d 974 (8th Cir. 2016) (enlisting a friend to create a false alibi and scripting a false confession); United States v. Jensen, 248 Fed. Appx. 849 (10th Cir. 2007) (giving advance notice of testing and falsifying results of tests).

Finally, prosecutors argued for a 2-level enhancement for all the violations of ABJ’s orders during the trial, notably his implicit threat against her.

Finally, pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1, two levels are added because the defendant “willfully obstructed or impeded, or attempted to obstruct or impede, the administration of justice with respect to the prosecution of the instant offense of conviction.” Shortly after the case was indicted, Stone posted an image of the presiding judge with a crosshair next to her head. In a hearing to address, among other things, Stone’s ongoing pretrial release, Stone gave sworn testimony about this matter that was not credible. Stone then repeatedly violated a more specific court order by posting messages on social media about matters related to the case.

This enhancement is warranted based on that conduct. See U.S.S.G. § 3C1.C Cmt. 4(F) (“providing materially false information to a magistrate or judge”); see, e.g., United States v. Lassequ, 806 F.3d 618, 625 (1st Cir. 2015) (“Providing false information to a judge in the course of a bail hearing can serve as a basis for the obstruction of justice enhancement.”); United States v. Jones, 911 F. Supp. 54 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (applying §3C1.1 enhancement to a defendant who submitted false information at hearing on modifying defendant’s conditions of release).

Prosecutors then showed how, under the guidelines, this adds up to an 87 to 108 month sentence.

Accordingly, Stone’s total offense level is 29 (14 + 8 + 3 + 2 + 2), and his Criminal History Category is I. His Guidelines Range is therefore 87-108 months.

Barr Recommendation: 30-46 months

In addition to violating DOJ policy of not deviating downwards from the Probation recommendation, the memo submitted under John Crabb Jr’s name (which his statements yesterday strongly indicate he did not write) offered little justification for why it was deviating from the Probation Office recommendation and never ultimately made a recommendation. But the memo suggested two of the enhancements — the 8-level enhancement for making a threat, and the 2-level enhancement for threatening ABJ — should not apply.

The memo suggested the 8-level enhancement shouldn’t apply, first, because doing so would double Stone’s exposure.

Notably, however, the Sentencing Guidelines enhancements in this case—while perhaps technically applicable— more than double the defendant’s total offense level and, as a result, disproportionately escalate the defendant’s sentencing exposure to an offense level of 29, which typically applies in cases involving violent offenses, such as armed robbery, not obstruction cases. Cf. U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(a)-(b). As explained below, removing these enhancements would have a significant effect on the defendant’s Guidelines range. For example, if the Court were not to apply the eight-level enhancement for threatening a witness with physical injury, it would result in the defendant receiving an advisory Guidelines range of 37 to 46 months, which as explained below is more in line with the typical sentences imposed in obstruction cases.

It pointed to Credico’s letter to justify ignoring it.

First, as noted above, the most serious sentencing enhancement in this case—the eightlevel enhancement under Section 2J1.2(b)(1)(B) for “threatening to cause physical injury”—has been disputed by the victim of that threat, Randy Credico, who asserts that he did not perceive a genuine threat from the defendant but rather stated that “I never in any way felt that Stone himself posed a direct physical threat to me or my dog.” (ECF No. 273). While Mr. Credico’s subjective beliefs are not dispositive as to this enhancement, the Court may consider them when assessing the impact of applying the enhancement – particularly given the significant impact that the enhancement has on the defendant’s total Guidelines range.

Then, Barr’s memo argued (and this is the truly outrageous argument) that Stone’s attempts to obstruct his own prosecution overlapped with his efforts to obstruct the HPSCI investigation.

Second, the two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice (§ 3C1.1) overlaps to a degree with the offense conduct in this case. Moreover, it is unclear to what extent the Second, the two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice (§ 3C1.1) overlaps to a degree with the offense conduct in this case. Moreover, it is unclear to what extent the

Effectively, this language treated threats against a judge as unworthy of enhancement.

Probably the only part of this memo that really affected ABJ’s sentence was a discussion of avoiding disparities in sentencing, where it mentions Scooter Libby’s 30 month sentence (and Manafort’s obstruction-related sentence, by ABJ, which was just one part of her 7.5 year sentence of him).

Third, the Court must “avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). In its prior filing, the Government directed the Court’s attention to a non-exhaustive list of witness tampering, false statement, and obstruction of justice cases that resulted in sentences of thirty months (Libby), thirteen months (Manafort), six months (Lavelle), twelve months (Hansen), and thirty-five months (Solofa). While these cases involved lesser offense conduct, the sentences imposed constituted a fraction of the penalty suggested by the advisory Guidelines in this case.

In comments to Lindsey Graham, Bill Barr said he thought the guidelines should say 3.5-4.5 years, slightly more than the guidelines if the witness tampering were removed, but if you eliminate both the witness tampering and obstruction of proceedings enhancement the range would be 30-47 months.

ABJ Guidelines Calculation: 70-87 months

In court yesterday, ABJ started by going through the recommended sentence. Ultimately, she did the following with the guidelines (h/t Andrew Prokop for his great live tweeting):

  • Accepted the 8-level enhancement for witness tampering, but said she’d take Credico’s comments into account
  • Accepted the 3-level enhancement for substantial interference, noting that HPSCI was totally diverted by focusing on Credico
  • Rejected the 2-level enhancement for the extensive nature of Stone’s obstruction (thereby agreeing with the original Probation office recommendation)
  • Accepted the 2-level enhancement for Stone’s obstruction in this prosecution

That works out to a base level of 14 + 8 for the witness tampering threat + 3 for substantial interference + 2 for his obstruction in this prosecution. As ABJ calculated in court yesterday, that amounts to a guidelines offense level of 27, or a guidelines range of 70 to 87 months.

Importantly, these decisions mean ABJ disagreed with both the recommendations made in the Barr memo that she throw out the witness tampering threat and Stone’s interference in this trial (which included the threat against her).

Contrary to what the WaPo lets DOJ claim under cover of anonymity, this in no way vindicates Barr. Rather, it rebukes him, stating that neither of his interventions are valid.

ABJ Sentence: 40 months

Nevertheless, ABJ came up with a sentence of 40 months, a sentence that’s solidly in the range of what Barr wanted (and therefore a sentence he’s on the record as saying is just for Stone’s crimes).

ABJ got there, in part, by taking Credico’s comments into consideration, while still treating Stone’s threat as real. She got there in part by arguing that the sentencing guidelines are “inflated” — something anathema to Bill Barr’s policies at DOJ, and a stance that would say all defendants should be sentenced more leniently, not just Trump’s rat-fucker.

In her sentence, she explicitly said she was ignoring Trump’s comments and comments from the left asking for harsh punishment.

Ultimately, ABJ calculated the guidelines — which she said were inflated (and would be for all defendants) — at 70-87 months. She then sentenced Stone to 57% of the lower end of those guidelines.

And that is what has the frothy right in a tizzy — that she extended Roger Stone the same leniency that she would extend to other defendants, in defiance of Bill Barr’s demands that every defendant not covering up for the President be sentenced harshly.

This is in no way a vindication of Bill Barr. It is also, in no way, abusive.

Update: This has been updated to reflect what the transcript says about the final probation recommendation.

Four Ways Bill Barr Fucked Up the Roger Stone Cover-Up

Let me say at the outset that I’m not imagining, with this post, that Bill Barr won’t succeed in helping Trump to bury the Russian investigation. The power of the President is breathtaking, Trump will still be able to commute Roger Stone’s sentence, and neither Barr nor Trump have any compunction about abusing power.

Still, Bill Barr really fucked up the cover-up for Roger Stone. He did so in at least four ways:

  • He intervened after prosecutors advised a guidelines sentence (of 7-9 years) when Judge Amy Berman Jackson was never likely to impose that. She ultimately sentenced Stone to 40 months, solidly within the sentence Barr demanded after the fact. In other words, he intervened when he didn’t have to, but by doing so he put himself on the record stating that 40 months was a just sentence.
  • He personally intervened. At the sentencing hearing, ABJ asked John Crabb Jr, the prosecutors whose name was on the revised sentencing memo, what happened. He made it clear that US Attorney Timothy Shea had bought off on the harsher sentence, and said the Attorney General was personally involved. Among other things, this led ABJ to note that it is “unprecedented” for DOJ not to request a guidelines sentence. Crabb also declined to say whether he wrote the revised sentencing memo or not, establishing cause to demand those details.
  • After prosecutors withdrew in response to Barr’s intervention, he went on TV to try to contain the damage. In that appearance, he stated quite clearly that this was a “righteous” prosecution.

BARR: Well, as you know, the Stone case was prosecuted while I was attorney general. And I supported it. I think it was established, he was convicted of obstructing Congress and witness tampering. And I thought that was a righteous prosecution. And I was happy that he was convicted.

  • The whole scandal probably led ABJ to tailor her comments to address it. On top of making clear how outrageous Stone’s obstruction was, she also alluded to the tweets of the President. She ended her statements by saying, “He was not prosecuted, as some have claimed, for standing up for the president. He was prosecuted for covering up for the president.” She backed that by noting Stone’s comment to Randy Credico that he, Stone, couldn’t take the Fifth because it would hurt the President. This establishes a legal record that Stone is going to prison to protect Trump — far stronger than what went in for Scooter Libby, who was also going to prison to protect his superiors.

Add that to Barr’s statements during confirmation that pardoning someone because of their false testimony is obstruction, and when the eventual commutation does come, the record will already be developed that Trump is engaging in obstruction by doing so.

Again, this is not to say that Barr won’t still succeed with this cover-up. But along the way, he did a number of things that will significantly raise the cost of it.

Bill Barr’s Past Statements Say Pardoning Roger Stone Would Be Obstruction

In a piece on Roger Stone’s sentence today, Politico questions how Bill Barr would regard a Trump pardon for Roger Stone.

How Barr would come down on a Stone pardon remains unclear. He’s a staunch defender of executive power and during his first stint as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush advocated for clemency on behalf of several Reagan-era officials caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal. He ultimately pushed for more pardons than the one Bush handed out to former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger.

“There were some people arguing just for Weinberger, and I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound,” Barr said in an oral history to the University of Virginia.

The piece doesn’t examine Barr’s past claimed beliefs, though. And if Barr had a shred of intellectual consistency, he would view a pardon as a crime.

Start with the three times, in his confirmation hearing, where Barr said offering a pardon for false testimony would be obstruction.

Leahy: Do you believe a president could lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise to not incriminate him?

Barr: No, that would be a crime.

[snip]

Klobuchar: You wrote on page one that a President persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?

Barr: [Pause] Yes. Any person who persuades another —

Klobuchar: Okay. You also said that a President or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?

Barr: Yes.

[snip]

Lindsey: So if there was some reason to believe that the President tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?

Barr: Yes, under that, under an obstruction statute, yes.

Obviously, Barr already reneged on this view when, after reviewing the facts presented in the Mueller Report — which showed Trump’s team coaching witnesses to hew the party line in the context of pardons. It even showed Trump’s own lawyer, Jay Sekulow, helping to write Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony.

Perhaps Barr imagined that because Mike Flynn ended up cooperating with prosecutors, because Mueller didn’t use the word “directed” with Cohen, because a judge only found Paul Manafort lied while he was pretending to cooperate by a preponderance of the evidence standard, those wouldn’t count if and when Trump pardons them. Maybe he believes that because the investigation started in July 2016 was unfair, it’s no biggie if Trump pardons the people first investigated during the election, Flynn and Manafort.

Two things distinguish Stone, though. First, at a moment when he needed to pretend to care about the legitimacy of his intervention, he fully owned this prosecution.

BARR: Well, as you know, the Stone case was prosecuted while I was attorney general. And I supported it. I think it was established, he was convicted of obstructing Congress and witness tampering. And I thought that was a righteous prosecution. And I was happy that he was convicted.

Barr thought this prosecution, for obstruction and false statements, was righteous. It happened under him, not under Mueller. To say this, he buys off on the premise that Stone indeed did obstruct with his lies.

And, of course, Stone lied specifically to protect the president, to avoid explaining all those calls with Trump about WikiLeaks, to avoid describing what role Trump had in any success Stone had in optimizing the release of the John Podesta emails. He even told Randy Credico that he had to plead the Fifth because Stone couldn’t, because of his ties to Trump.

And perhaps still more significant, Roger Stone altered his testimony, in the form of his opening argument at trial, even after the Mueller Report came out to make it consistent with information Jerome Corsi made available while still protecting the secrets that would most implicate him and Trump. To HPSCI, Stone claimed he had one intermediary, who was Credico, at trial, his lawyers claimed he had two, but they both fooled the old rat-fucker about their ties to WikiLeaks.

Neither of those stories are true, they’re both crafted to protect Trump, Stone made the second lies after an extended discussion of how pardons equate to obstruction, and Barr has said Stone’s conviction for telling the lies is righteous.

Mind you, none of that is going to change the fact that Trump will extend clemency to Stone. It probably just means that Barr will invite some journalist he has known for decades and talk about tweets to distract from the fact that Barr is already on the record saying that what comes next is a crime.