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The Definition of “Collusion” as Impeachment Proceeds: the Risk Trump Poses to All Americans

It’s a testament to how crazy things have been this week that this memo — Andrew McCabe’s memorialization of opening the investigation into Donald Trump on May 16, 2017 — only got covered by obsequious propagandists on the frothy right. Judicial Watch liberated it via FOIA and actually had to focus on something else — Rod Rosenstein’s offer to wear a wire — to drive interest.

I suspect that’s because the memo paints McCabe’s own actions in favorable light (and Rosenstein in a damning light, both as regards his own integrity and his purported loyalty to Trump). Consider this paragraph:

I began by telling [Rosenstein] that today I approved the opening of an investigation of President Donald Trump. I explained that the purpose of the investigation was to investigate allegations of possible collusion between the president and the Russian Government, possible obstruction of justice related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey, and possible conspiracy to obstruct justice. The DAG questioned what I meant by collusion and I explained that I was referring to the investigation of any potential links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. I explained that the counterintelligence investigations of this sort were meant to uncover any [sic] the existence of any threat to national security as well as whether or not criminal conduct had occurred. Regarding the obstruction issues, I made clear that our predication was based not only on the president’s comments last week to reporter Lester Holt (that he connected the firing of the director to the FBI’s Russia investigation), but also on the several concerning comments the president made to Director Comey over the last few months. These comments included the President’s requests for assurances of loyalty, statements about the Russia investigation and the investigation of General Michael Flynn. I also informed the DAG that Director Comey preserved his recollection of these interactions in a series of contemporaneously drafted memos. Finally, I informed the DAG that as a result of his role in the matter, I thought he would be a witness in the case. [my emphasis]

The substance of this paragraph has been told before, albeit by certain NYT reporters who have consistently misunderstood the substance of Trump’s ties to Russia. Those tellings have always left out that McCabe also predicated a conspiracy to obstruct justice investigation (meaning, among other things, that Rosenstein himself was on the line for his actions to create an excuse for firing Comey). The emphasis, here, is also not focused exclusively on Mike Flynn but on the Russian investigation generally; as I’ve been meaning to show, Trump faced at least as much direct exposure given the investigation into Roger Stone, and his actions after he learned Stone was a target in March 2017 reflect that more than commonly understood.

By far, the most important detail in this paragraph, however, is McCabe’s definition of “collusion,” as he explained it the day before Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to investigate what he would later call collusion. Collusion, for McCabe, is just “potential links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” not necessarily any criminal ties. McCabe made this statement at a time when FBI knew about neither the June 9 meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton nor Trump’s sustained effort to pursue an improbably lucrative Trump Tower deal, to say nothing of the fact that Trump’s campaign manager was sharing campaign strategy while discussing how to carve up Ukraine to Russia’s liking. That is, according to the definition McCabe used, the investigation did find “collusion.” Period, end of sentence.

Importantly, the first thing McCabe raised when discussing such — at that point hypothetical — links was national security, not criminal campaign finance or bribery exposure. That is, McCabe opened the “collusion” investigation to find out whether Trump’s — at that point hypothetical — links to the Russian government were making the US less secure. The answer to that question was not included in the Mueller Report; indeed, the most glaring evidence that those links did make the US less secure were very pointedly not included in the report.

This is an important lesson as the Ukraine investigation — which cannot and should not be separated from the Russian investigation — proceeds, one that has thus far been deemphasized again. Trump’s continued efforts to pursue policies — foreign and domestic — that personally benefit him don’t just amount to breathtaking corruption. They provide foreign countries more and more leverage to use against Trump to limit his policy options. Every time Trump does something scandalous with a foreign leader — and he does it all … the … time — it means those foreign leaders can hold that over Trump going forward and in so doing, limit his negotiating position. So not only do Americans lose out on having a President who makes decisions based on how they benefit the country rather than himself personally, but they also get a far weaker President in the bargain, someone who — if he ever decided to prioritize American interests over his own — would have already traded away his bargaining chips to do so.

Through his actions thus far as President, Trump has guaranteed he cannot pursue policies that would benefit average Americans, and he has done so not just with Russia and Ukraine, and not just because of his executive incompetence.

There is an impact that Trump’s “collusion” and corruption have on everyday Americans, whether they wear pussy hats or MAGA caps, an impact that Democrats have permitted Republicans to obscure. Trump’s actions effectively rob Americans of the powerful executive on foreign policy issues that our Constitution very imperfectly sought to ensure, without stripping the weakened Trump of the tools he can wield to punish those who call him on his weakness.

Because he always self-deals, Trump has made himself an intolerably weak President, one who makes the US less secure at every step. Republicans defending him need to be held accountable for weakening the US.

What we know of Bill Barr’s treatment of the ICIG referral on the Ukrainian whistleblower suggests he only reviewed it, cursorily, for criminal campaign finance violations — possibly not even the obvious presidential bribery prohibited explicitly by our Constitution it exhibits. Bill Barr did not, with the Russian investigation and has not with the Ukrainian referral, consider how by protecting Trump’s actions, he robs every American of what the Constitution guarantees: a President, not a man shopping for revenge and phallic symbols in foreign capitals. That’s why Barr had to totally distort the conclusions of the Mueller report on collusion: to hide what it is really about and to hide how enabling such activity by Trump hurts Americans.

Yet from the start, from the moment when McCabe opened an investigation into Trump, that’s what it was supposed to be about.

How Roger Stone’s Trial Relates to the Ukraine Scandal

The White House released the readout from one (but not all) of the calls involved in the whistleblower complaint. It shows that before Trump asked Volodymyr Zelensky for help framing Joe Biden, he first asked Zelensky for help attacking Crowdstrike.

The President: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has.it. There are a lot. of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you are surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I . would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.

As with the sections involving the request on Biden, this one includes ellipses, hiding part of Trump’s ask. Also like those sections, this one suggests Bill Barr is involved in his improper request.

A request about Crowdstrike more directly addresses matters of intelligence — the attribution of the 2016 operation to Russia — than an effort to frame Joe Biden.

And this Crowdstrike request is what ties the call obviously to the timing — the day after the Mueller testimony gave Trump the belief he had weathered the Russian investigation.

Only, Trump is not clear of the impact of the Mueller investigation. On the contrary, if all goes on schedule, prosecutors will present abundant evidence of what even Mark Meadows calls “collusion,” the campaign’s effort to optimize the WikiLeaks releases, in Roger Stone’s November trial. As I have noted, in addition to Steve Bannon and Erik Prince, the trial will talk about Stone’s texts and calls to four different Donald Trump phone numbers, as well as his aides and bodyguard, Keith Schiller. (This screen cap comes from a list of stipulated phone numbers and emails that has since been sealed.)

The Stone trial (if it goes forward–I still have my doubts) will show that Trump was personally involved in these efforts and got repeated updates directly from Stone.

And a key strand of Stone’s defense is to question the Crowdstrike findings on the hack. Stone has been pursuing this effort for months — it’s what almost got him jailed under his gag. And while Amy Berman Jackson ruled twice this week against Stone getting any further Crowdstrike reports (once in an opinion denying Stone’s efforts to get unredacted Crowdstrike reports as moot since the government doesn’t have them, and once today in his pre-trial hearing when she deemed the remaining unredacted passages to pertain to ongoing Democratic cybersecurity protections and so unrelated to what Stone wants them for), Stone still has several redacted Crowdstrike reports from discovery.

Stone’s defense has focused entirely on discrediting the evidence that Trump partnered with a hostile country to get elected (which presumably is part of his effort to get a pardon). If he can support that effort by releasing currently private Crowdstrike reports he will do so.

Today’s pre-trial hearing — where ABJ also ruled that Stone won’t be able to question the underlying Russian investigation — may have mooted the effort to tie Ukrainian disinformation to Stone’s own disinformation effort. But the two efforts are linked efforts by Trump to deny his own role in “colluding” with Russia.

Bill Barr Refuses to “Comply First, Complain Later” with Congressional Oversight

A number of people have talked about how dangerous — and how outdated — is much of what Attorney General Bill Barr said to a police organization the other day. I’d like to take another approach with his speech: to show what it looks like when you replace “police” with a co-equal branch of government constitutionally empowered to police the Executive. The italicized words below have swapped out the original. I’ve underlined my own additions.

The anti-oversight narrative is fanning disrespect for the law.  In recent years, we have witnessed increasing toleration of the notion that it is somehow okay to resist oversight.

Previously, it was well understood that, regardless of the circumstances, legal resistance is unacceptable because it necessarily leads to a spiral of escalating resistance that endangers the ability of Congress to oversee the Executive.  For that reason, virtually all jurisdictions have made resistance a serious crime.

Not too long ago influential public voices — whether in the media or among community and civic leaders — stressed the need to comply with oversight commands, even if one thinks they are unjust.  “Comply first” and, if you think you have been wronged, “complain later.”

But we don’t hear this much anymore.  Instead, when an incident escalates due to a suspect’s legal resistance to oversight, that fact is usually ignored by the commentary.  Congress’ every action is dissected, but the suspect’s resistance, and the danger it posed, frequently goes without mention.

We need to get back to basics.  We need public voices, in the media and elsewhere, to underscore the need to “Comply first, and, if warranted, complain later.”  This will make everyone safe – the police, suspects, and the community at large.  And those who resist must be prosecuted for that crime.  We must have zero tolerance for resisting police.  This will save lives.

[snip]

These anti-oversight Attorneys General have tended to emerge in jurisdictions where the nomination process is undermined by an abuse of Vacancy Reform Act.  Frequently, these candidates get rushed through because the incumbent is an entirely unqualified flunky and their confirmations are sometimes accompanied by large infusions of money from outside groups.

Once in office, they have been announcing their refusal to enforce broad swathes of the criminal law.  Most disturbing is that some are refusing to prosecute cases of resisting oversight.

Bill Barr doesn’t believe any average American should ask questions before complying with those empowered to force them to abide by the law.

But his view is entirely different when it comes to his boss complying with the only body — given the OLC memos Barr has reinforced — with the authority to police Executive branch abuses. Indeed, he has (unsurprisingly) refused to enforce contempt citations, and has instead fostered the kind of disrespect for the law he claims to believe in.

Four Months Ago Attorney General Bill Barr Called BOP Staff Shortages that Led to Whitey Bulger Murder “a SNAFU”

At an Appropriations hearing in April, Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito premised a question about cuts to Bureau of Prison staffing budgets by reminding, “We’ve had several murders at Hazelton,” the federal Maximum Security facility in her state of West Virginia. (The WaPo noted this exchange in one of their early stories on Jeffrey Epstein’s death, though without this context.)

She doesn’t mean just any murders. In addition to some inmates from DC that Eleanor Holmes Norton had raised concerns about last fall, Hazelton was the site of Whitey Bulger’s murder, a death in BOP custody of an inmate every bit as worthy of close attention as Jeffrey Epstein, a death that was every bit as predictable as Epstein’s.

Capito went on to list several of the same problems that appear to have permitted Epstein’s death in the Metropolitan Correctional Center: staffing shortages and people assigned to perform duties they’re not trained for.

We’ve had complaints from staffing that there’s staffing shortages, it’s not safe for our correctional officers, they’re being asked to perform different duties maybe than what they’re originally assigned for, and in the budget, there’s a funding reduction for correctional officer staffing and salaries in the budget. Could you help me square with that, and is this a national problem that you’re finding across the BOP?

After Bulger’s murder, correctional officer union representatives cited the same problems: severe understaffing and people hired for other functions filling in for guards.

“(The) reported death at USP Hazelton, while concerning, is unsurprising,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “Federal prisons across the country are suffering from severe understaffing, and the situation is perhaps no more dire than at Hazelton.”

The union reported that one in five positions authorized two years ago is vacant, and teachers, administrative assistants and accountants have had to fill in shifts as officers and first responders to violent incidents.

In response to a question from a Republican Senator about these issues, the Attorney General admitted failure. “I think this is an area where we have stumbled.” Rather than answering Senator Capito’s question about the budget, though (again, this was an Appropriations hearing), he instead explained that the problem wasn’t budget, it’s that the BOP doesn’t have all its assigned slots full because of how it hires.

I’ve been looking into this because it’s been very frustrating to me because I’ve always supported Bureau of Prisons in the past and think it’s a great organization and if we’re going to have people incarcerated we have to make sure they’re incarcerated under proper conditions. We are  — The way I look at it our authorized level is good and adequate. It’s that we’re four to five thousand people short of our authorized level.

Barr went on to provide evidence of a systematic underlying problem. “Every year we lose 2,600 of these correctional officers.” Without considering why turnover in the BOP is so high, he instead offered this solution. “My view is we just have to turn on the spigot and just keep these new entry level people coming in at a rate where we’re going to be able to get up to and maintain our enacted level. So I think this is largely a SNAFU by the department.”

Senator Capito warned once more about staffing levels and noted that those staffing levels are one of the reasons why people — even in West Virginia — don’t want the jobs.

I’m glad to hear what you’ve said in terms of getting more people in because the ratios are going up and in certain situations can be very dangerous for the officers that are working there, and then it discourages people from wanting to stay. It’s a tough job.

In a statement the other day, Barr claimed that some of the things that led to Epstein’s death (whether murder or suicide) — the same understaffing leading to people playing roles they weren’t hired for that Capito warned of in April — were “severe irregularities.”

I was appalled – indeed, the entire Department was – and frankly angry, to learn of the MCC’s failure to adequately secure this prisoner.  We are now learning of serious irregularities at this facility that are deeply concerning and that demand a thorough investigation.  The FBI and the Office of Inspector General are already doing just that.  We will get to the bottom of what happened at the MCC and we will hold people accountable for this failure.

This afternoon, Barr took action against the MCC warden and the two staffers on whose watch Epstein died, temporarily reassigning the warden and putting the officers on leave, effectively blaming them for conditions he called a SNAFU back in April.

On Tuesday, Barr “directed the Bureau of Prisons to temporarily assign” warden Lamine N’Diaye to a regional office, pending the outcome of internal investigations into Epstein’s death, the Justice Department said in a statement. Two staffers who were assigned to Epstein’s unit at the time of his death were placed on administrative leave, the department said.

Back in April, Barr called staffing shortages in prisons “a SNAFU.” Now, having been warned and having acknowledged the problem, he’s claiming some of the same problems were not regular, but instead severely irregular, and he’s blaming the people on the front lines rather than those in charge of the “SNAFU.”

What I Would Do with the Mueller Report If I Were Reggie Walton

According to Politico, a hearing in the EPIC/BuzzFeed effort to liberate the Mueller Report went unexpectedly well today. It seems that Bill Barr’s propaganda effort to spin the results of the Mueller Report got Walton’s hackles up, leading him to believe that Barr’s effort covered up the degree to which Trump “colluded” with Russia.

Walton said he had “some concerns” about trying to reconcile public statements Trump and Attorney General William Barr have made about the report with the content of the report itself.

The judge pointed to Trump’s claims that Mueller found “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia and the president’s insistence that he had been exonerated from a possible obstruction of justice charge. These comments, Walton said, appeared bolstered by Barr’s description of Mueller’s findings during a DOJ news conference — before the public and media could read the document for themselves.

“It’d seem to be inconsistent with what the report itself said,” Walton said. The judge also cited a letter Mueller’s office sent to Barr questioning the attorney general’s decision to release a four-page summary of the investigation’s conclusions that “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of the report.

Separately on Monday, Walton raised questions about a DOJ submission defending the agency’s decision to black out large portions of the Mueller report.

“I also worked for the department,” Walton said. “Sometimes the body does what the head wants.”

I thought I’d lay out what I would do if I were Judge Walton. I’d make different decisions if I were a judge, but having covered some of his biggest confrontations with an expansive Executive, I’m pretending I can imagine how he’d think.

I’m doing this not because I think he’ll follow my guidance, but to establish what I think might be reasonable things to imagine he’ll review for unsealing.

Unseal the discussions of how Donald Trump père and fils avoided testifying to the grand jury

As I have noted, there are two passages apiece that describe how Donald Trump Sr and Donald Trump Jr avoided testifying to the grand jury. While they might discuss the grand jury’s interest in subpoenaing the men, and while they might (both!) say that the men would invoke the Fifth if forced to show up and invoke it, those passages likely don’t describe that the men did so.

Particularly given Jr’s willingness to testify to Congressional committees that likely don’t have all the documents from Trump Organization that Mueller had, those passages should be unsealed unless they involve real grand jury decisions.

Unseal the names of Trump flunkies against whom investigations were opened in October 2017

The most obviously dishonest thing Bill Barr did in releasing the Mueller Report is claim that those against whom prosecutions were declined were peripheral people. At least one person (and up to three people) in this passage is not: Don Jr. Walton should unseal these names, especially given that Barr lied about how peripheral, at least, the President’s son is.

Review the longer descriptions of those who lied but weren’t charged

There are up to three people that Mueller appears to have considered for perjury charges (page 194 and two people on page 199) and at least one more whom he considered charging for false statements. Some of the discussion of the people in the former category include non grand jury material as well.

If I were Walton, I’d review this entire section and (treating Roger Stone separately) would unseal at least the names of the senior Trump officials not charged (one is KT McFarland). Given the treatment of Jeff Sessions — whose prosecution declination was not sealed — DOJ has already treated people inconsistently in this section.

Review the declinations starting on page 176, page 179, and page 188 for possible unsealing

There are three declinations that are candidates for unsealing. The most important — which describes the office’s consideration of charging WikiLeaks’ releases of stolen emails as an illegal campaign donation — is the last one. It raises real campaign finance questions and would feed right into impeachment.

The charging decision on page 179 may explain why Don Jr wasn’t charged for sharing a link to a non-public site releasing stolen emails (but it could also pertain to someone no one knows who tried to hack Guccifer 2.0). If it’s the former, if I were Walton, I might consider unsealing that.

The most interesting charging decision, starting on page 176, may explain why WikiLeaks wasn’t charged, why Stone wasn’t or why others were not. If it’s WikiLeaks, it’s the kind of decision already made public in the recent SDNY decision and could be released. In any case, that’s a redaction that likely would be worth Walton’s judicial consideration.

Order that Roger Stone sections be unsealed if there’s a substantive change in his gag order

A huge chunk of the remaining redactions pertain to Roger Stone or his trial. They also are among the most damning to Trump, as they implicate him personally in trying to make the most of Russia’s effort to help him. I, as Marcy Wheeler, would love to see them, today.

But Reggie Walton, who presumably eats lunch with Amy Berman Jackson in the DC District Judges cafeteria, will also recognize the difficulties she faces in seating a jury for the trial of the President’s rat-fucker in November. So unless something changes to the status quo — in which ABJ has imposed a strict gag on Stone — then I suspect he’ll cede to her judgment.

And, frankly, anyone who’d like to see Stone face some kind of repercussions for his rat-fuckery should also support him getting a fair trial, meaning they should support the continued sealing.

That doesn’t stop Walton from ordering that if something changes — if Stone wins an appeal he announced today to get his gag overturned, if Trump pardons Stone, or if Stone pleads — then the sections will automatically become unsealed. One of the biggest ways Trump can avoid all repercussion for his efforts to optimize the release of stolen information is to have Stone avoid trial (either by pleading or being pardoned) but preventing a reconsideration of redactions done to protect his right to a fair trial.

Leave national security sections sealed because I’m Reggie Walton

I and many others would love to see more of the IRA and GRU sections (though there’s a gag in the IRA case now too), especially those sections about how GRU passed on materials to WikiLeaks.

But I’m not Reggie Walton. While he’s very happy to take on an expansive Executive, he generally shows significant deference for claims of national security. Thus, I expect he’ll likely leave this stuff sealed.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

John Ratcliffe and Accountability for a President Who Lives in a Fox News Bubble

Garrett Graff argues that, even given the list of indicted or otherwise disgraced former Trump officials, John Ratcliffe may be Trump’s most alarming personnel decision. I don’t disagree that the Ratcliffe decision is dangerous. But Graff’s argument made me realize something else about the pick. Ratcliffe is dangerous because he may render the entire intelligence apparatus useless, but useless for a purpose it is not currently supposed to serve.

Graff describes, accurately, what the purported function of the Intelligence Community is: to provide the President with the best possible information that he will use — the assumption goes — to make the best possible decisions for our country.

The biggest danger Ratcliffe poses is to the integrity of the job of director of national intelligence in the first place; the core principle of the intelligence professional is to speak truth to power.

The US spends $60 billion a year on the nation’s intelligence apparatus, a workforce of tens of thousands ranging from CIA officers and FBI agents to NSA cryptologists and hackers, NGA analysts, interpretation experts at the NRO, financial wizards at the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and much more.

All of that money and all of those workers share a simple uniting goal: To ensure that the president of the United States is, in every conversation and decision, the most informed, knowledgeable, best-prepared person in the room. They enable the president and his advisors to anticipate problems and opportunities; understand the mind, decision-making, and internal pressures of foreign leaders far and wide; know from satellites overhead, cables underground, and agents in the field what’s happening the world over—and why.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that you can have this enormous bureaucracy and the sole justification for it all, in statute, is to make the President smart. That’s not even practically how it works anymore — so many people in and outside that bureaucracy make decisions based off their work, and Congress increasingly relies on it too, that that justification seems rather odd when laid out like that. But that is what the legal justification remains.

Having laid out that accurate justification, Graff argues, correctly, that Ratcliffe’s record as a toady for Trump means he won’t speak truth to power as Dan Coats has at key times.

With a president so divorced from daily reality as Trump, it’s all the more important to fill the role of DNI with someone whose first duty is to puncture the Fox News fever swamp bubble that surrounds the White House, and provide real facts, grounded analysis, and ensure—to whatever extent possible—that the information that flows into the Oval Office and the decisions that flow out of it are informed and strategic.’

This is, technically, the problem, at least if you buy all the arguments about the function of the IC. If Ratcliffe shades the intelligence and tells Trump what he wants to hear, rather than what the IC believes to be true, then Trump’s decisions won’t be as rigorous.

Except if all that’s true — if the most important role of the DNI is to accurately convey the true intelligence the IC has created — then it doesn’t much matter who Trump appoints. That’s because it doesn’t matter whether Trump hears the truth or not, he doesn’t use intelligence anyway. He’s going to do what his gut and Fox News tells him to do, regardless of whether it flies in the face of reality. Hell, much of the GOP will go along these days, including our Fox saturated Attorney General, who has in less obvious but no less dangerous ways lost his grip of a reality independent of the Fox bubble.

What Graff seems to suggest is that Coats currently serves as a signal to the rest of us, a siren letting us know what reality is and when the President is defying it with his policy choices. When Coats tells us North Korea will continue to pursue its nuclear program in spite of all the photo ops the President stages, it’s providing us a tool to say he’s wrong, but it’s doing little (outside of Congress) to force the President to adopt a policy on North Korea based on what Kim Jong Un will actually do.

Of course, Ratcliffe is a problem for a bunch of other reasons. It’s not just that he will brief the President with false claims the President wants to be true, but he will order up the entire bureaucracy to replicate the false claims the President wants to be true, in defiance of known facts. He will fire competent people and replace them with people willing to serve up the false claims the President wants to be true; indeed, both he and Trump have already said that’s what he wants to do. He will also probably sanction the misuse of intelligence (he has already called for investigations into Jim Comey and others that have already happened, with unknown conclusions, which suggests he wants the outcome of those investigations to be different than what they are).

Those are all dangerous things. But that they present the real threat to the Ratcliffe appointment, they signal that the IC doesn’t actually serve the purpose laid out in statute anymore and that — especially in the wake of the Iraq War debacle (in the wake of which the DNI position was created, as a way to avoid similar catastrophes in the future) — the public has grown to expect the IC to serve as a measure of whether the President has spun free of reality (Obama did this most notably on Syria and Afghanistan).

There’s a hope, I think, that the IC can save us all from being forced to live in Trump and Ratcliffe and Bill Barr’s Fox News bubble, or at the very least, bringing Trump back from the bubble into reality.

If that’s really what purpose we expect it to serve, we need a dramatically different IC than we currently have.

The 18th Warrant Application against Roger Stone Investigated Hacking

Update: A later ABJ ruling makes it clear that, true to form, Stone’s lawyers are completely disorganized and Exhibit 18 was not in fact the last warrant temporally.

Doug Collins asked some curious questions — amid a series of questions designed to rule out Robert Mueller passing non-public information to Democrats — at Wednesday’s hearing. He asked whether Mueller had obtained any additional information since closing up shop in May 2019.

COLLINS: Since closing the special counsel’s office in May of 2019, have you conducted any additional interviews or obtained any new information in your role as special counsel?

MUELLER: In the — in the — in the wake of the report?

COLLINS: Since the — since the closing of the office in May of 2019.

MUELLER: And the question was, have we conducted…

COLLINS: Have you conducted any new interviews, any new witnesses, anything?

MUELLER: No.

The conversation served as background to Collins’ questions about whether Trump or “those close to him” were involved in Russian conspiracies.

COLLINS: Isn’t it true the evidence did not establish that the president or those close to him were involved in the charged Russian computer hacking or active measure conspiracies or that the president otherwise had unlawful relationships with any Russian official, Volume 2, page 76? Correct?

MUELLER: I will leave the answer to our report.

COLLINS: So that is a yes.

The question is interesting for two reasons.

First, as I noted, Mueller’s resignation on May 29 preceded Roger Stone aide Andrew Miller’s agreement to testify to the grand jury by minutes. Mueller stayed in place long enough to ensure the subpoena served on Miller a year earlier would be enforced. But he did not, as Special Counsel, obtain that testimony; the DC US Attorney’s office did, using a different grand jury.

One thing Collins (who reportedly had lunch with Trump’s defense attorney Bill Barr before this hearing) would have done with his question is probe whether Mueller knew what has happened with Miller’s testimony to a different grand jury. But it would also mean that Mueller’s answer — that no one close to Trump was involved in any Russian computer hacking — would not cover Miller’s testimony and aftermath.

And that’s interesting because of the history of warrants obtained through February 2019 against Roger Stone.

Between August 2017 and February 2019, the government obtained eighteen search warrants for electronic facilities and properties related to Roger Stone. Doc. 109, Exs. 1-18. Many of these search warrants were issued in the District of Columbia by Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell. Doc. 109, Exs. 1-10, 16, 18. Three warrants were issued in the District by other district judges. See Ex. 11 (Judge Contreras); Ex. 12-13 (Judge Boasberg). Others were issued by magistrate judges in other districts. Exs. 14 (S.D.N.Y); Exs. 15, 17 (S.D. Fl.).

Fourteen of the affidavits (“the 1030 warrant affidavits”) allege probable cause that the search will yield evidence of a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1030, which makes it a crime to “intentionally access[] a computer without authorization or exceed[] authorized access and thereby obtain[]…information from any protected computer.” 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2)(C). See Exs. 1- 13, 18. In brief, each of these affidavits (at a minimum) states that Stone communicated with the Twitter account Guccifer 2.0 about hacked materials Guccifer had posted. Each affidavit states that on June 15, 2016, Guccifer 2.0 publicly claimed responsibility for the hack of the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee (“DNC”). Each affidavit states that Organization 1 published materials stolen from the DNC in the hack. Each affidavit describes Stone’s communications (including his own public statements about them) with Guccifer 2.0, Organization 1, and the head of Organization 1. Each affidavit submits that, based on those communications, there was probable cause to believe that evidence related to the DNC hack would be found in the specified location. Many of these affidavits contain additional evidence alleging probable cause to believe evidence will be found of violations of additional crimes, including 18 U.S.C. § 3 (accessory after the fact); 18 U.S.C. § 4 (misprision of a felony); 18 U.S.C. § 371 (conspiracy); 18 U.S.C. §§ 1505 and 1512 (obstruction of justice); 18 U.S.C. § 1513 (witness tampering); 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 contribution ban). See, e.g., Exs. 7-13 (all crimes). Stone raises no arguments regarding these other crimes.

In addition, four of the affidavits (the “false statement warrant affidavits”), issued close in time to Stone’s indictment, allege probable cause that the search will yield evidence of false statements, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. See Exs. 14-17. Those affidavits set forth evidence supporting the allegations in the indictment that Stone made false statements in his September 2017 testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (“HPSCI”), obstructed ongoing investigations, and tampered with a witness.

Starting in July 2017, the government obtained warrants targeting Stone investigating — among other things — hacking. In the time leading up to Stone’s indictment in January, the government obtained four warrants investigating just the false statements and witness tampering charges he was indicted for.

And then in February 2019, the government obtained one more warrant. It’s possible that’s the warrant, issued on February 13, reflected in the liberated docket of warrants, which would appear to cover searches of devices obtained from the searches on Stone’s homes. That one targeted hacking again.

Stone’s challenge to the search warrants against him started on May 10, and the government filing laying out the warrants issued between July 2017 and February 2019 was submitted on May 31, the same day Miller testified (and before he complied with an additional request for communications with Stone). So any claim to be discussing the totality of the warrants against Stone (even assuming they’d tell him about ones investigating crimes beyond his current indictment) would not reflect any investigative steps that followed on Miller’s testimony.

To be clear: if Collins knows of further investigation for Stone for hacking, then it’d be pretty likely that he learned of it because Barr was tampering with that investigation. So this is not to say that any ongoing investigation of the President’s rat-fucker will go anywhere.

But Collins’ questions of Mueller would have the effect of cabining off (whether or not that was the intent) any investigation of Stone that continued even in the minutes after Mueller resigned and Stone’s aide finally started testifying. And the last warrant obtained before that point shows that the government continued to investigate Stone for hacking crimes.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

The Republicans Complaining about Mueller’s Non-Exoneration of Trump Don’t Care that He Exonerated Jeff Sessions

One of the new attacks Republicans launched on the Mueller Report yesterday is that Mueller explicitly did not exonerate Trump, complaining that prosecutorial discretion doesn’t include the power to exonerate. Here’s how John Ratcliffe put it yesterday.

The special counsel’s job — nowhere does it say that you were to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence, or that the special counsel report should determine whether or not to exonerate him. It not in any of the documents. It’s not in your appointment order. It’s not in the special counsel regulations. It’s not in the OLC opinions. It’s not in the Justice Manual. And it’s not in the Principles of Federal Prosecution.

Nowhere do those words appear together because, respectfully — respectfully, Director, it was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him. Because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence. It exists for everyone. Everyone is entitled to it, including sitting presidents. And because there is a presumption of innocence, prosecutors never, ever need to conclusively determine it.

Except that Ratcliffe and other Republicans didn’t complain and aren’t complaining about the point in his report, as released, where he did exonerate someone, with Bill Barr’s approval: Jeff Sessions.

As set forth in Volume I, Section IV.A.6, supra, the investigation established that, while a U.S. Senator and a Trump Campaign advisor, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions interacted with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during the week of the Republican National Convention in July 2016 and again at a meeting in Sessions’ s Senate office in September 2016. The investigation also established that Sessions and Kislyak both attended a reception held before candidate Trump’s foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., in April 2016, and that it is possible that they met briefly at that reception.

The Office considered whether, in light of these interactions, Sessions committed perjury before, or made false statements to, Congress in connection with his confirmation as Attorney General. In January 2017 testimony during his confirmation hearing, Sessions stated in response to a question about Trump Campaign communications with the Russian government that he had “been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have – did not have communications with the Russians.” In written responses submitted on January 17, 2017, Sessions answered “[n]o” to a question asking whether he had “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day.” And, in a March 2017 supplement to his testimony, Sessions identified two of the campaign-period contacts with Ambassador Kislyak noted above, which had been reported in the media following the January 2017 confirmation hearing. Sessions stated in the supplemental response that he did “not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador, or any other representatives of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasion.”

Although the investigation established that Sessions interacted with Kislyak on the occasions described above and that Kislyak mentioned the presidential campaign on at least one occasion, the evidence is not sufficient to prove that Sessions gave knowingly false answers to Russia-related questions in light of the wording and context of those questions. With respect to Sessions’s statements that he did “not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador . .. regarding the political campaign” and he had not been in contact with any Russian official “about the 2016 election,” the evidence concerning the nature of Sessions’s interactions with Kislyak makes it plausible that Sessions did not recall discussing the campaign with Kislyak at the time of his statements. Similarly, while Sessions stated in his January 2017 oral testimony that he “did not have communications with Russians,” he did so in response to a question that had linked such not have communications with Russians,” he did so in response to a question that had linked such communications to an alleged “continuing exchange of information” between the Trump Campaign and Russian government intermediaries. Sessions later explained to the Senate and to the Office that he understood the question as narrowly calling for disclosure of interactions with Russians that involved the exchange of campaign information, as distinguished from more routine contacts with Russian nationals. Given the context in which the question was asked, that understanding is plausible.

Accordingly, the Office concluded that the evidence was insufficient to prove that Sessions was willfully untruthful in his answers and thus insufficient to obtain or sustain a conviction for perjury or false statements. Consistent with the Principles of Federal Prosecution, the Office therefore determined not to pursue charges against Sessions and informed his counsel of that decision in March 2018.

In fact, Mueller must have provided similar explanations in at least four more instances, where he explained why other Trump people didn’t get charged, most often for lying.

But all of those other discussions were redacted under a personal privacy exemption (or, in the FOIA version, a b(5), b(6)/b(7)(C) exemption). Presumably, those other instances were less clearcut, or perhaps they simply weren’t someone as senior as Sessions. But redactions consistently applied would have redacted this passage too, denying Sessions (who would be running for his old Senate seat this year if Trump weren’t still angry that Sessions didn’t act more like Bill Barr while serving as Attorney General) of the public explanation why he wasn’t charged.

Nothing Mueller said yesterday indicated he had any complaints about the redactions in the report (though he was more willing to talk about why Trump Sr. didn’t testify — the discussion of which is partly redacted in the report — than Don Jr, which is redacted under the same grand jury justification).

But in the case of Jeff Sessions, the redaction process was not treated in the way applied with everyone else, especially including mentions of Don Jr. And Republican silence about that inconsistency suggests they don’t really have a principled stance about public decisions of exoneration.

Failing to Damage Mueller, GOP Now Claiming Mueller Not Sufficiently Vigorous to Oversee Trump Investigation

Robert Mueller just finished the first of two hearings today.

At times he appeared like those of us who have covered him for years expected, feisty and sharp. Between his responses to Jerry Nadler and Ted Lieu, he made it clear he would have indicted if not for the OLC opinion prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president, even while he refused to say the word impeachment. He repeatedly said that a failure to succeed at obstructing justice is still a crime. He stated that the decision not to reach a prosecutorial decision arose because this investigation is unlike any other, in that Trump couldn’t be prosecuted. He stated that Trump could be charged after he left office.

He defended the integrity of his team and the fairness of his report. He backed his March 27 letter that complained about Attorney General Bill Barr’s misrepresentation of the report.

In short, Mueller made it clear that he believes Trump obstructed justice and Bill Barr lied to obscure that fact.

But at times, he seemed lost. He forgot that Ronald Reagan appointed him US Attorney, often searched to see who was asking questions, and forgot key details. It didn’t help, either, that he refused to read from the report (though that was a pre-arranged refusal to create soundbites at the behest of Democrats).

Having not damaged Mueller, then, the Republicans are already out suggesting that the Robert Mueller that appeared out of it today could not have been fully in charge of the investigation into Donald Trump.

Mueller’s performance raised questions that reached far beyond one appearance before one committee. It called into doubt the degree to which Mueller was in charge of the entire special counsel investigation.

“You wonder how much of this was affecting the investigation,” one Republican member of the House said as he watched Mueller’s testimony. “It sheds a lot of light on what happened the last two years. He wasn’t in charge.”

If Mueller was not fully in charge, that would direct attention to the staff he assembled for the investigation — staff that President Trump has often derided as “17 angry Democrats.” Some of Mueller’s aides were Democratic donors, and a key aide, Andrew Weissmann, famously attended Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election night event that was planned as a victory party. It seems likely that Republicans will direct new attention to them in light of Mueller’s appearance.

Except that representation misstates something that was litigated, all the way to the Supreme Court, in this case. Robert Mueller wasn’t in charge of this investigation. His supervisor — whether it be Rod Rosenstein, Matt Big Dick Toilet Salesman Whitaker, or Bill Barr — was ultimately in charge of the investigation.

And if it is true that Robert Mueller wasn’t all there when he was leading this investigation, it was up to his supervisor to do something about it.

Indeed, if you look at some of the big questions about Mueller’s prosecutorial decisions — most notably, not to demand an interview with the President, but also the decision to stop the investigation before even getting the Andrew Miller testimony or Mystery Appellant evidence  — you might wonder whether someone feistier would have fought for that testimony.

Republicans are, minutes after the conclusion of that hearing, complaining that Robert Mueller wasn’t forceful enough in his testimony. If that’s the question they want to raise, then they should also worry about whether Bill Barr, especially, manipulated Mueller.

Robert Mueller Asked To Be Instructed To Hew To the Report

Since DOJ’s letter to Robert Mueller got released last night, many on the left have fumed that this is part of a nefarious effort by Bill Barr to silence Mueller.

And while I don’t doubt that Barr will do anything he can to limit the damage of Mueller’s testimony to his client, Donald Trump (indeed, there were reports that he met with HJC Ranking Member Doug Collins yesterday), this letter was orchestrated by Mueller, not Barr.

As the letter notes, Mueller wrote to DOJ on July 10. By that point, it was already crystal clear what kind of guidance DOJ would offer if asked. So he had to have known he’d get the letter he did. And yet he asked for instructions, when nothing obligated him to do so.

Moreover, this letter was released by his spox, not by DOJ. Effectively, then, this is Mueller setting — re-setting, repeating what he said in his press conference on May 29 — expectations. That doesn’t mean people can’t ask Mueller questions beyond his report (I would argue that matters about the release of the report are not covered in DOJ’s letter). But he now has the ability to blame DOJ for not answering.

That said, it’s likely that this actually limits GOP plans for the hearing more than Democrats. That’s true, in part, because Democrats have already been planning really milquetoast questions, assuming that having Mueller read directly from his report will be sufficient to generate new outrage over Trump’s actions. But it’s also true because most of the things Republicans want to emphasize — the role of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, the Steele dossier, the FBI’s use of informants, Carter Page’s FISA application — are mostly outside the scope of the report. About half the questions Chuck Ross suggested, for example, would be outside the scope of the report (while I situated my questions more closely in existing public documents, probably half of mine would be deemed to go beyond the report as well).

If the Republicans want to talk about the Steele dossier, Mueller will guide them to either Jim Comey’s briefing about the dossier on January 6, 2017, or the pee tape — the only allegation in the dossier that made the unredacted parts of the report. And if Republicans choose that option, it’ll mean Mueller will explain over and over that Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, was taking steps to chase down the pee tape well before the dossier was made public. (Hope Hicks was also trying to chase down the pee tape, but that didn’t make the report.) It’s not going to help Trump’s case to show that his campaign took the pee tape seriously, along with all the other sex scandals that threatened to erupt right before the election in 2016.

Likewise, if Republicans want to talk about “FISA abuse,” the former FBI Director will either direct them to the three places in the report where Trump included Jeff Sessions’ inaction on FISA among the reasons he wanted to fire him to thwart the investigation, or (more likely) he’ll point to the standard to obtain a FISA warrant.

On four occasions, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) issued warrants based on a finding of probable cause to believe that Page was an agent of a foreign power. 50 U.S.C. §§ 1801 (b ), 1805(a)(2)(A). The FISC’s probable-cause finding was based on a different (and lower) standard than the one governing the Office’s decision whether to bring charges against Page, which is whether admissible evidence would likely be sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Page acted as an agent of the Russian Federation during the period at issue. Cf United States v. Cardoza, 713 F.3d 656, 660 (D.C. Cir. 2013) ( explaining that probable cause requires only “a fair probability,” and not “certainty, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or proof by a preponderance of the evidence”).

And he can then point to all the details in the report, such as Page’s willingness to share non-public information with known Russian intelligence officers, and his claims that he represented the interests of Donald Trump in December 2016, including on negotiating a Ukraine deal.

I’m not happy that Mueller is walking into this hearing setting expectations as low as he can. Though I was sympathetic to his offer to testify in closed session, as I’m fairly certain Congress would get more useful answers with less conspiracy theorizing.

But it’s worth noting that these instructions will serve as a tool to shut down Republican grandstanding even more than it will shut down Democrats.